Another Reason Pringle Should Resign

DEC. 8, 2010

It’s always tough to get back into the reporting grind after a week’s vacation. Well, nearly always – when the California High-Speed Rail Authority is one of your beats, it’s actually quite easy.

Waiting for me in my e-mail inbox was a copy of the independent high-speed rail Peer Review Group’s Nov. 18, 2010 report on the controversial bullet train project, still slated to run 800 miles across the state and cost between $43 billion and $90 billion. The report,  a cold slap in the face for anyone backing the proposed bullet trains, was apparently made public following a Dec. 3 Sacramento Bee story on it, but the copy sent to me came from Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), a Palo Alto group of four women who want the rail project done efficiently, responsibly and honestly – in other words, they want the project done completely differently than it is now.

“There were no real surprises, and nothing really shocking,” said Nadia Naik, a Palo Alto stay-at-home mom active with CARRD. “But these are still strong statements from people who support the project. It shows they’re really paying attention.”

Strong statements indeed. “It would be a daunting task under the best of circumstances,” Peer Review Group Chairman (and former CalTrans boss) Will Kempton wrote to Assembly Speaker John Perez (D, Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D, Sacramento) in the report’s cover letter. “Meeting the challenge will require a thorough re-assessment of a number of critical engineering, financial, economic, and managerial issues, and will require agreement among the Legislature, the Governor, and the Authority on what the resolution of those issues should be.”

Or put another way, it’s always nice to read a secret government document that shows my reporting over the last year has been pretty much spot-on. For instance, the Peer Review Group took issue with the fact that the high-speed rail authority has a microscopic staff of 17.5 to oversee hundreds of contracting and sub-contracting firms that employ thousands of people (though the authority is apparently hiring: click here for a “staff services analyst” hiring notice).

“[W]e are concerned after discussions with the Authority that the staff level now permitted is totally inadequate to oversee a project of this magnitude, no matter what business model is ultimately chosen,” states the report. “The existing massive imbalance between the numbers of Authority staff and consultants has been the source of continuing criticism; the problem will be much exacerbated as the project moves into implementation.”

That is IF it moves into implementation. Kempton’s group also makes clear that funding the bullet trains is a massive “uncertainty,” to say the least. “The lack of a clear financial plan is a critical concern,” states the Peer Review Group report. “In a deteriorating budget climate in which even large and high beneficial projects are abruptly canceled because of a shortage of funds, and in which the likelihood of new large federal funding programs appears small, there is an air of unreality about a plan that includes $17 to $19 billion in ‘free’ federal funding from programs that do not yet exist.”

Forget his alleged years of violating the state’s doctrine of incompatible offices: rail authority chairman Curt Pringle should resign over this report, which amounts to a 20-page indictment of the authority’s numerous and expensive failures.

For her part, Naik had nothing to quarrel with over the content of the report, but the Peer Review Group itself, which operates in virtual secrecy, gives CARRD pause. “We’re concerned about the public process,” Naik said. “There’s still some concern whether they’re subject to the Bagley-Keene [open meetings] rule. And they have no website. Who are they? They should either get their own website or they high-speed rail authority should carry that bucket. We want to see more transparency.”

-Anthony Pignataro

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  1. Ted Crocker
    Ted Crocker 8 December, 2010, 13:09

    I think I can speak for CARRD and anyone else who has been watchdogging this project. We are all very pleased to see that the Peer Review Committee is doing its job. Until recently, we weren’t so sure there even was one ;-). To Nadia’s point, as with the rest of this process, transparency is critical, especially for building public trust, of which there is very little at this time.

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  2. Kathy Hamilton
    Kathy Hamilton 8 December, 2010, 22:09

    And now with Obama cutting the funds for High Speed Rail to $1 billion US wide next year, it looks like California’s need for $18 billion from the feds will not materialize. Next we will see if the Republicans will stop the funding of the billions awarded previously to California and other states.

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  3. John Steele
    John Steele 9 December, 2010, 08:07

    The HighSpeed rail line will never be built as there isn’t enough money in the State to build it. It doesn’t go anywhere that anybody wnats to go and it’s only 56 miles long. Marin and Sonnma Counties are trying to build a SMART lite rail line that doen’t go anywhere either at a cost of billions of dollars. Both of these boondoggles need to die and have the money used elswere

    John Steele
    Fairfax CA

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