Tuesday, February 22, 2011 | Efforts to reform or even abolish California’s controversial $43 billion proposed high-speed rail project were met this week with a promotional campaign organized by a top state government rail executive to impress a key federal official.

Three California legislators have proposed bills that range from shaking up the High-Speed Rail Authority to doing away with the proposed Anaheim-to-San Francisco bullet train system altogether.

Meanwhile, a series of emails obtained by Voice of OC reveal a range of lobbying efforts by a key high-speed rail official, from mobilizing rail industry insiders at a congressional hearing in Fresno today to keeping Vice President Joe Biden on the side of the current California rail project.

The goal, according to the emails, is to demonstrate support for high-speed rail to House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida.

“Trust that you are also helping to ensure that the industry and labor are out in full force to flood any negative contributors,” High-Speed Rail Authority Chief Executive Officer Roelof van Ark wrote in one email to Jo-Linda Thompson, registered lobbyist for the Association for California High Speed Trains.

In another email, van Ark said he met privately for a short time earlier this month in Philadelphia with Biden and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood after they announced the availability of $53 billion for high-speed rail projects nationwide.

“I was able to give them a short update, particularly regarding a few neigh-sayers (sic) we have here in CA who need some motivation,” van Ark wrote. “They are both very supportive of the CA HSR project, saying we are well ahead of others…”

All of this activity comes as high-speed raid continues to be a controversial topic in California.

A series of audits raised concerns about everything from flawed ridership studies to millions of dollars in bills paid without invoices to the overall lack of a basic business plan.

Community leaders around the state have criticized rail contractors and project leaders for riding roughshod over community interests, refusing to listen to local leaders and failing to communicate openly about the project, as required by California laws.

Revamping High-Speed Rail

In an effort to increase accountability to the public, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal has introduced legislation to remove all nine members of the High-Speed Rail Authority board and replace them with professionals in finance, engineering and other relevant areas.

“It’s about time we have a high-speed rail governance that reflects the 21st Century,” he said. “There’s no accountability to the governor or the Legislature. They just have to be brought up-to-speed.”

His bill would require the governing board to include a financial expert, an environmental specialist, an attorney familiar with construction law, an engineer with expertise with megaprojects, a business person and representatives from local government and labor.

Lowenthal, a Long Beach Democrat, is a supporter of high-speed rail and is the chairman of a special new Senate committee on high-speed rail oversight. The committee is expected to hold its first hearing toward the end of March.

“We just have to re-establish trust,” he said. “It’s just time to have accountability and transparency on this issue, which we don’t have.”

Lowenthal said there is bi-partisan support for reform of the current rail system. Even if his measure doesn’t pass as currently written, he predicted “something will happen”

“It’s not going to die,” he said. “There’s just too much (Legislative) interest. That’s our state money that’s being put up.”

Republican Assemblywoman Diane Harkey of Dana Point offers a different approach. She introduced a bill last month that would abolish the high-speed rail project.

“The lack of oversight, accountability and inconsistency in route and planning, should sound a strong signal that this estimated $40-80 billion dollar train deserves to be derailed,” she said in a statement when the bill was introduced. “The people of California are tired of out-of-control state spending and expect us to do what we can to put California’s finances back on track.”

A third measure, by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), who is a supporter of high-speed rail, is aimed at shoring up ethical control over the existing board. A gap in current law, he said, permits some board members to serve without having to fill out the conflict of interest statements that California elected officials and many top agency and city and county employees must file each year.

The forms list investments and income so the public has a way to determine if those in a position to make decisions have a conflict of interest.

Currently, members of the rail board who also happen to be elected officials need to fill out the forms, but board members who simply are appointed don’t. Correa’s bill would require all of them, plus the top employees, to file the annual disclosures.

Lowenthal’s bill also contains an ethics provision. It would bar anyone from service on the high-speed rail board who worked for any of its contractors or potential contractors or suppliers during the past two years.

In addition, anyone leaving the board would be prohibited for two years from going to work for a board contractor or supplier and a firm that was a possible contractor or supplier. That provision is similar to one required of members of the state Air Resources Control Board.

Behind the Scene Maneuvering

Following the receipt of van Ark’s email Feb. 15, Thompson, the lobbyist, forwarded it to about 100 others, many of them existing contractors or potential high-speed rail contractors, like Parsons Corp. or Siemens.

“Can everyone let me know if you are sending a team next Tuesday?,” Thompson asked. “See the email trail below, we need some positive energy here!”

Bryn Forhan, a Fresno consultant, sent van Ark an email saying in part “just so you know, I met with the Fresno Works coalition this afternoon about the upcoming hearing. I gave them direction to turn out as many people as possible for the Fresno hearing.

We are mobilizing business people, Chambers of Commerce, community leaders, laborers, students and general supporters of the project. Our goal is to turnout 300-400 people.”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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