California's High-Speed Railroading

MARCH 16

There’s not a lot of humor in California’s proposed high-speed rail project. It’s a massive undertaking, which will cost at least $43 billion, and probably twice that – money that isn’t exactly lying around these days. Its 800-mile network of new tracks will uproot hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. No matter how you slice it, the idea of suddenly running bullet trains up and down the state of California is at the very least sobering.

Though I must admit, after I read the March 14 Voice of OC story “Add Poor Communication to List of High-Speed Rail Problems,” I had to laugh. The story, though true, is unintentionally hilarious.

Its premise is certainly sound: the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s public outreach work is “poor to nonexistent,” according to numerous critics cited in the article. And the critics don’t mince words.

“I hate to use a cliché,” USC public relations professor Jennifer Floto says in the story, “but it sounds like they’re trying to railroad it through… [I]t sounds like they’re constantly playing catch-up and telling people why they should like this.”

This should be easy for the high-speed rail authority, which enjoys bipartisan support across the state. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger loved the trains, and so does current Gov. Jerry Brown. In 2008, voters approved Proposition 1A, which approved the sale of nearly $10 billion in bonds to start the project.

And yet the news coming out of the authority is one crisis after another. A couple of authority board members were accused of violating the state’s doctrine of incompatible offices; one resigned, and one – Chairman Curt Pringle – simply stayed put until his Anaheim mayoral term ran out, erasing the issue. Other board members fended off accusations that they violated the state’s gift bans, and failed to report official travel.

Through it all, authority officials have insisted their biggest problem was communication. “The authority intends to work to improve communication among our entities,” rail authority Executive Director Roelof Van Ark wrote to the mayors of Morgan Hill and Gilroy back on Oct. 14, 2010.

Actually, communication is something the high-speed rail officials and subcontractors do quite often. If anything, they’ve been spending too much time and money on communication: according to one of state Inspector General Laura Chick’s last reports, in 2010 the authority paid tens of thousands of dollars to sub-contractors working on public relations without examining any reports documenting what the money was actually going towards.

The real problem here is that the rail authority sees “communication” and “outreach” as methods of getting their project built. Not made better, but built with a minimum of nay saying and criticism.

For instance, take this Feb. 14 e-mail that CalWatchdog obtained, which Van Ark sent to public relations sub-contractor Jo Linda Thompson, who also directs a mammoth group of companies – many of which hold high-speed rail contracts – that promote the bullet train project. It’s very simple, not very romantic, but still quite a Valentine: “Trust that you are also helping to ensure that the labor are out in full force to flood any negative contributors,” Van Ark wrote.

This is true communication and outreach, as seen by the people bringing you high-speed rail. Outreach is making sure the voices advocating bullet trains drown out those bringing up issues like cost, eminent domain, noise and potential ridership.

Thompson certainly got the message. The next day, she sent an e-mail to more than 100 people – including public relations consultant Donna Lucas, who in my Feb. 16, 2011 story “The Cost Of Fighting Bullet Trains” denied having anything to do with the state’s high-speed rail project – asking them to help spread the bullet train gospel at an upcoming transportation hearing in Fresno that apparently had little to do with high-speed rail. “[W]e need some positive energy here!” she wrote.

True public outreach is about more than simply gathering “energy” – it’s about giving worried residents and skeptics honest, uncomfortable explanations about where exactly their money is going, where the train tracks will run and how exactly the trains will operate. Voice of OC seemed to recognize this, and asked the rail authority about it. Given the authority’s past behavior, deputy executive director Jeff Barker’s response is not at all surprising.

“We don’t have a lot of answers that people want right now because of this early stage the project is at,” Barker said.

–Anthony Pignataro

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