Wednesday, December 1, 2010 | California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Curt Pringle had no faith in the engineers responsible for designing and implementing the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles segment of the $43 billion statewide bullet train project, according to emails sent by Pringle in January that have been obtained by Voice of OC.
“I do not think that the engineers working on the Anaheim to LA segment are capable of doing the work,” Pringle wrote in a January 18 email to Mehdi Morshed, who at the time was chief executive of the Rail Authority.
“They seem to be so dense … they are not able of understanding the impacts of their words and actions. I sincerely do not know how they can work on a project of this size!”
Anti-rail activists have long complained about mismanagement of the program, which was approved by voters in 2008. And a series of government audits and reports have in large measure backed up their claims.
But the email exchanges between Pringle and Mehdi show for the first time a top official sharing grave concerns about the core competence of the project’s builders and designers.
The emails also illustrate the balancing act Pringle has played between his roles as high-speed rail chairman and mayor of Anaheim. The California Attorney General is currently investigating claims that Pringle violated the state’s incompatible offices statute by holding both titles.
Specifically, the emails disclosed potential construction and financial problems for the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodel Center or ARTIC, the city’s planned rail and bus terminal.
Morshed reminded Pringle that the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles leg of the train project was added to the first phase of construction because the total cost was supposed to be less than $2 billion and there was a possibility of using some Orange County sales tax revenue.
But the costs have gone up in the past two years as plans for ARTIC became more complicated, in part because of faulty CalTrans plans relied on by rail engineers. The track into Anaheim’s ARTIC station originally was planned to cross over the 57 Freeway, but according to Morshed, expensive tunnels now must be constructed.
All of this, Morshed warned in emails to Pringle, could jeopardize the ARTIC project.
“At some point,” Morshed wrote in response to Pringle’s first email, “the [rail] board or your private partner may ask if the cost is justified by the benefits. I raise this as a reminder that just taking the easy option of building tunnels here and there may in fact jeopardize the entire project.”
Private Concerns Go Public
The Pringle-Morshed emails (available as a PDF attached to this report) were released by the High-Speed Rail Authority following a Voice of OC request under the California Public Records Act.
Pringle said “the private email that I sent that clearly isn’t private now” was intended to ensure that “this [project] was done right.”
The ire Pringle expressed in his email echoed similar complaints from community leaders up and down the planned 800-mile train route; they accuse rail engineers of riding roughshod over community interests, refusing to listen to local leaders and lacking strong oversight over the quality of their work.
San Francisco Bay Area leaders have complained about proposed routes damaging communities, and Buena Park is threatened with the loss of its new train station.
“I am preparing for the FIRST community meeting in my city on Wednesday,” Pringle wrote on Jan. 18. “How a project of this size could ever move this far without EVER talking to the public is inconceivable!”
And later in his email he said, “How can I demonstrate any degree of confidence in this team? I can not represent to ANY person from any region in this state that I have confidence in this team.
“I am very angry. … I am NOT KIDDING!”
The overall project manager is British-owned Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., which holds a $199 million contract to oversee the planned system through 2013. Parsons Brinckerhoff has subcontracted with a series of other engineering firms to work on regions throughout the state.
Parsons Brinckerhoff has come under fire in other parts of the country, most notably Massachusetts, where the firm, along with its engineering partners, paid $458.2 million to avoid criminal charges and civil liability stemming from Boston’s ill-fated Big Dig tunnel which was plagued by cost overruns, leaks, and a 2006 ceiling collapse that killed a woman.
The Big Dig debacle so angered members of the Massachusetts Legislature that some of its leaders tried, unsuccessfully, to have Parsons Brinckerhoff permanently banned from doing business in the state.
In California, a series of government audits and reports have found the Rail Authority paid millions in bills without invoices, lacks a sound business plan and is using unreliable ridership statistics to show financial support for the rail project.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Pringle said operations of the High-Speed Rail Authority have improved since he wrote the emails.
“I feel very good about where Parsons Brinckerhoff is at this time,” he said, noting that it was subcontractors that caused the problems in Anaheim.
But, he said, all participants in the project must be well-managed and “that oversight needs to be coordinated. You always can do better.”
He said that since he wrote the emails the rail authority has a new chief executive, a new public outreach approach and a new Parsons Brinckerhoff project director, among other changes.
But the construction issues for ARTIC that Pringle outlined in January, still remain.
Problems With ARTIC
In his first email, Pringle wrote that plans by rail engineers to move the ARTIC station from the south side of the 57 to the north side were a “stupid idea” that, “if presented, will cause a whirlwind of anger from the Angels toward the city!”
And, he warned, “my entire city council will come unglued and will oppose high speed rail if this is forced on us — but in fact your engineers don’t live in the real world. The land that they have designs on is not available. They have been told that. And yet they make a proposal — out of thin air — that is impossible, inconceivable and unable to be accomplished.”
In reply, Morshed wrote that if the station wasn’t moved, the alternative “is a potentially costly tunnel about 3 levels below the surface connected by a pedestrian tunnel to the ARTIC station.”
Ultimately, Anaheim asked the High-Speed Rail Authority for $200 million to allow the ARTIC station handle high-speed trains. That request is on hold.
The emails also raised a conflict-of-interest issue that the California Attorney General’s Office is expected to address soon. In his response to Pringle, Morshed began his email by writing, “in reading your email I had difficulty separating the message from the Mayor with that of the Chairman of the Authority.”
State law prohibits officials from holding “incompatible offices” in which their duties to one agency conflict with their duties to the other. Pringle’s term as mayor ends Dec. 7, but the Attorney General is expected to offer its opinion on whether he had a conflict by trying to serve both the city and the rail authority.