Orange County Transportation Authority board members, fearful of being rushed into an agreement that might erroneously signal support for the state's $98-billion high-speed rail system, this week delayed approving a regional pact with other Southern California transportation agencies.
The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) was pressing for approval because it faces an April 5 deadline to submit regional transportation issues for possible federal financing.
"If we don't put it in the plan, we're out of the game," said SCAG Executive Director Hasan M. Ikhrata after the board vote. "This is the first time we've gotten [the California High-Speed Rail Authority] to say, 'OK guys, we want to work with you.' "
During the discussion, he warned the board that if Orange County changed any of the wording, all of the other area transportation agencies, who are part of the agreement, would have to agree to the changes, a process that could extend past the April 5 deadline.
Despite the deadline, the OCTA board wants another chance to review proposed changes to the agreement and will do so at its Feb. 27 meeting. Ikhrata said the two-week delay probably would still leave time to meet the deadline.
The transportation authority directors were particularly concerned with two awkwardly worded paragraphs in the proposed agreement. While they support using money to make local rail improvements, they didn't want to be locked into supporting the current statewide rail project.
SCAG represents six counties: Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial. The proposed regional agreement includes the state's High-Speed Rail Authority and San Diego County's transportation agency.
OCTA director Michael Hennessey, a real estate consultant, said that as a businessman he becomes concerned when he hears, "'You have to do it now or you're not going to have a seat at the table,' " or when someone "gives us a short time frame and says ‘quick, quick.' "
Other board members said they worried that the current draft agreement could be used by backers of the troubled high-speed rail project to falsely promote it as being supported by Orange County transportation leaders.
Officially, Orange County is neutral on the project in order to remain involved and collect any rail improvement funds that high-speed rail might generate for the area.
"This isn't what it appears to be," said county Supervisor Shawn Nelson.
Supervisor Pat Bates reminded the board that OCTA has a strong reputation with the public and that it is important not to tarnish it with the troubles afflicting high-speed rail.
Said Supervisor John Moorlach: "I see high-speed rail as this expensive toy that we have to have because Mr. Jones has it, Mr. China has it, Mr. Spain has it. It's not visionary, it's delusionary."
Lake Forest Mayor Peter Herzog said wording in parts of the memorandum of understanding could be misinterpreted to imply OCTA supported the high-speed rail plan.
Other board members agreed, and the board directed its staff to rewrite the offending sections and bring drafts to the Feb. 27 meeting.
Its leadership and contractors became so battered by repeated critical reports from outside auditors and experts that Gov. Jerry Brown essentially took the project away from the board that was supposed to manage it and moved it more directly under his control.
Orange County and other urban areas never will see true high-speed trains, even if the project is completed. The top speed trains could reach between Anaheim and Los Angeles is 90 miles an hour. Only in sections of the Central Valley would speeds reach up to 220 miles an hour.
Although voters approved the project, the Legislature must authorize any expenditure of the $9 billion in state bonds. The initial vote is expected this year, but authorization is facing strong opposition.
"At the end of the day, all of this could crumble," said Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido. "It's fragile at best politically. Friends come and go but enemies accumulate."
— TRACY WOOD