Rail Authority "Ineffective"

Katy Grimes: When a lawmaker admits that an agency created from a bond measure that he supported and help get passed has grown ineffective and needs a serious makeover, it is evident that there is a problem.

Democratic Sen. Alan Lowenthal has authored a bill to overhaul the High Speed Rail Authority and has even gone as far as asking the Bureau of State Audits to conduct an audit of the Authority.

Lowenthal’s bill, SB 517, would require the current High Speed Rail Authority appointees’ terms to expire at the end of the year, and then allow the Governor to appoint new board members with rail industry-specific experience, knowledge and training.

Described as the largest public works project in the United States, Lowenthal’s concern is what he described as “chaos” within the Authority, and the desperate need for legislators to “manage the people’s money” more effectively. “We are at risk – this bill is dealing with that risk,” said Lowenthal during the Senate Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday.

Republican Sen. Ted Gaines (Fair Oaks) disagreed with Lowenthal’s approach. “I have not ever supported High Speed Rail. It’s a huge waste of money,” Gaines said, and described the project as a “boondoggle.”

Lowenthal received Gaines’ comments well, but said that because the rail bond was voted on and approved by the people of California, legislators now have a responsibility to oversee and manage the spending.

SB 517 places the High-Speed Rail Authority under umbrella and authority of the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and would add the agency’s secretary to the rail authority.

But Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) commented that while he is a supporter of High Speed Rail, he was concerned with placing the Authority under another state agency. “The state isn’t exactly a standard of business,” said Huff.

Addressing another bone of contention with the Authority members, the bill would “enact various conflict-of-interest provisions applicable to members of the authority and staff.

“I am fearful people were sold a pig-in-a-poke,” said Gaines. “The expenses are adding up dramatically – maybe we should stop the bleeding by stopping the funding entirely,” Gaines added.

SB 517 appeared to be stuck in the transportation committee yesterday, but eventually passed out with a 7-2 vote.

A similar Assembly bill, AB 953, by Republican Assemblyman Brian Jones (La Mesa), which calls for a new ridership study to be completed, did not receive enough votes Monday in the Assembly Transportation Committee to pass, but will be heard again next week. Jones’ bill also addresses some very serious flaws in the Rail Authority, which I addressed in “High Speed Rail Crashes Into Legislature.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the Rail Authority is spending money like drunken sailors, lacks any accountability, and has been plagued by board member conflicts of interest. The solutions will be difficult to agree upon, with many legislators wanting to just scrap the whole rail project and cut the state’s losses right now.

APRI 27, 2011


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