High-speed rail looks for contractors even as lawsuit looms

The Fresno BeeJuly 22, 2013 

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is looking for firms to handle engineering and surveying for its prospective route south of Fresno, even as a lawsuit threatens to derail plans to start construction this summer between Fresno and Madera.

This kind of contradiction is typical for an agency that has about a $6 billion starting bankroll and a deadline of September 2017 to spend the federal portion of it.

The authority last week issued a request for companies to submit their qualifications for right of way engineering and surveying in anticipation of awarding a contract of up to $1.5 million.

The winning company or companies will set up the proposed route between American Avenue, at the south end of Fresno, and the northwestern outskirts of Bakersfield.

Companies must submit their statements of qualifications by Aug. 15.

The qualification statements are taking the place of a more formal process in which companies submit bids to compete for the contract. After the qualifications are received, a selection committee "will recommend the top ranking contractor(s) for award of the contract(s)," according to information provided by the authority. The agency will work on negotiating a contract with the highest-ranked firm.

An authority spokeswoman said state law requires the agency to use a qualification-based selection instead of competitive price-based bidding because of the types of services to be provided.

"These services are so specific that they fall under Government Code 4526, which requires the selection to be based on qualifications," said Lisa Marie Alley, the agency's press secretary.

That portion of the law states that hiring for services including surveying and engineering "shall be on the basis of demonstrated competence and on the professional qualifications necessary for the satisfactory performance of the services required."

The authority board will be asked to approve the qualification-based selection process at its Aug. 1 meeting in Sacramento.

The contract is proposed to start in October and run for three years.

The engineering and surveying work would be for the second, third and fourth construction packages for the high-speed rail project in the San Joaquin Valley.

It wouldn't be the first time that the authority altered its selection process for contractors. Last year, the authority amended the evaluation process that led to picking a consortium of three companies for work on the first construction segment.

The authority hopes to break ground on that first section, from Avenue 17 in Madera to American Avenue, this summer. The agency is negotiating a $1 billion contract with a consortium of three companies for the work.

The next three segments would continue to build the railroad bed and infrastructure including bridges and street overcrossings south into Kern County. A fifth contract would pay for laying the steel rails along the entire Madera-to-Kern County stretch.

The authority has about $6 billion -- a combination of federal stimulus and transportation funds and money from Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion bond measure from 2008 -- for construction in the Valley. How much track gets built for that $6 billion will depend on how bids come in for the various sections.

Obstacles still abound for the project, however.

The most immediate -- and potentially far-reaching -- roadblock is a lawsuit filed by Hanford farmer John Tos, homeowner Aaron Fukuda and Kings County. They allege that the authority's entire plan for the statewide high-speed rail network violates Prop. 1A by offering a project that is substantially different than what voters approved.

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge heard arguments in that case on May 31 and has yet to issue a ruling. Judge Michael Kenny has until the end of August to issue that ruling.

The rail authority also has yet to complete its environmental analysis of its Fresno-to-Bakersfield section.

The agency originally issued a draft environmental impact report in August 2011, but withdrew the massive document to reconsider additional route options that had previously been abandoned. A revised draft was issued about a year ago. The authority anticipates approving a final version of the EIR this year. The final EIR will set a firm route for the rail line and include responses to comments and complaints received in public hearings last fall.

No construction can take place south of downtown Fresno until the agency certifies the environmental impact report and formally approves a rail route.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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