Monday, March 14, 2011 | California’s $43 billion high-speed rail project has been beset with administrative problems — ranging from mishandled finances to faulty ridership estimates — almost since the day voters approved it in 2008.

Exacerbating these problems is a communication and outreach effort by the California High-Speed Rail Authority that has been poor to nonexistent, say critics and experts.

Complaints of bad communication run the length of the entire proposed route from the San Francisco Bay area to Buena Park.

Engineers are accused of failing to work with local officials and organizations while routing noisy trains right alongside schools in Agua Dulce and planning a 75-foot-high track smack through the city of Alhambra. In the Central Valley, farmers worry the project wants to needlessly commandeer valuable farmland near Shafter.

“The outreach is not to the agriculture community,” said Kern County almond grower Keith Gardiner. His acreage, once owned by Herbert Hoover and later the site where the Disney Rose was cultivated, now is facing partial condemnation to make way for the train. “It’s us outreaching to them,” he said, “not them outreaching to us.”

For decades, planners of huge freeway and rail projects have known poor communication can incite anger, demonstrations and a potentially fatal backlash from those who are likely to be damaged by construction.

California’s own first effort to build high-speed rail died in 1984 in part because of secrecy and poor communication that caused citizen groups to rally against it. Even China, which prohibits the mildest of protests, was faced with organized resistance in 2008 by Shanghai homeowners opposed to the high-speed train route.

For state Sen. Joseph S. Simitian, D-Palo Alto, an elementary problem is the poor quality of the High-Speed Rail Authority’s website. He said his constituents complain they can’t find basic public documents and reports on the site, which mostly promotes the project.

And Buena Park leaders last year learned, without advance notice, they could lose their new Metrolink station when the rail system eventually extends into Orange County.

Even one of the rail authority’s own consultants last fall stressed the importance of “transparency” and making sure public officials are performing serious oversight and outreach.

“I hate to use a cliché,” said USC public relations professor Jennifer Floto, “but it sounds like they’re trying to railroad it (high-speed rail) through.”

Floto worked on major freeway projects with CalTrans, including one that won an award for its work with the community, before she joined the faculty of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism 13 years ago.

The complaints and criticisms being leveled at the High-Speed Rail board in public meetings and to members of the Legislature and Congress, she said, reflect the age-old problem of engineers vs. the public.

“Engineers are notorious for not communicating very well,” she said.

California High-Speed Rail Chief Executive Officer Roelof van Ark, himself an engineer, agrees.

“I am fully aware of that (communication) being a restriction or a limitation of an engineer,” he said. “Many engineers are not great communicators.”

Which is why, they both said, it is important for the project to employ professionals, well-qualified to communicate with the public.

How California is Doing It

California, according to former rail board member Rod Diridon and a number of those affected by the planned train, got off to a poor start with its outreach programs.

Statewide public relations were under the supervision of main engineering contractor Parson Brinckerhoff. Regional outreach contracts were awarded by the engineering firms in charge of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley and Los Angeles-Orange County.

Diridon said four years ago “I identified the fact we were having a real problem with some of the engineering groups saying one thing and the board saying another thing.”

The problem grew so bad that about a year and a half ago the rail board pulled the statewide contract away from Parsons Brinckhoff’s control and rebid it. The Ogilvy PR firm now is handling statewide issues, but doesn’t control regional outreach contractors.

“The engineers are great doing studies, but they shouldn’t be setting policies,” Diridon said.

Translating Engineer-speak into English

Huge engineering firms, like Parsons Brinckerhoff, move from project to project around the world, creating temporary jobs. To ensure their projects work, they worry about engineering problems, like running trains in straight lines.

“When you build a high-speed rail,” said van Ark, “there are (engineering) rules you have to abide by.”

But when the engineers leave, it’s the residents, community and state leaders who must live for decades with the results.

Van Ark, who joined the project in June, said outreach people are working with the engineers, adding “I can only tell you from my short time on this project, there is a huge amount of outreach happening on this project.”

But questions raised by critics, including city council members, school administrators, homeowners and farmers who testified at this month’s rail board meeting, were directed at the quality of that outreach and who is being left out and why.

“The first step in doing the project right …is communicating well,” Dan Bednarski, one of those opposing elevated tracks through Alhambra, cautioned the board.

The first thing a project should do, Floto said, is identify points along a proposed route, like schools, historical sites, environmentally sensitive areas, farms, communities and neighborhoods that will need special attention.

Public relations experts are brought in early, she said, and, in a huge project like high-speed rail, there needs to be a single, overall message from one end of the route to the other.

In the case of California’s high-speed rail, she said “it sounds like they’re constantly playing catch-up and telling people why they should like this.

“To me, honestly, it seems like a no-brainer,” said Floto. “If you’re going to spend this much money, you better do it right.”

At this month’s board meeting, one communication complaint followed another, including the issues in Alhambra, Agua Dulce and Kern County.

“We don’t have a lot of answers that people want right now because of this early stage the project is at,” said Jeff Barker, the rail authority’s deputy executive director in charge of communication.

But project officials are rushing to finish environmental impact reports so construction can start next year in the Central Valley and routes are being selected.

“At the risk of stating the obvious,” said Simitian of his Bay Area constituents, “the authority has struggled over the last few years with its community relations.”

In Kern County, Gardiner raised similar criticisms, saying owners of some of the world’s most valuable agricultural land are left out of discussions to use that property. Why, he wonders, doesn’t high-speed rail follow the existing rail rights of way through the Central Valley?

“In our area,” said Gardiner, “they haven’t outreached a bit, not at all.

“If they can’t get it right, right from the beginning,” he asks, “how are they going to satisfy the mass of people when it gets to Anaheim?”

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