Crews continue to work on a series of concrete and steel columns that will eventually support a 1,600-foot bridge over a river and highway in Madera, the first tangible major construction on the state’s controversial bullet-train project.
But the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s work at the Fresno River and Highway 145 was overshadowed Thursday by a demand from Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and other Republican legislators for an investigation into the agency’s finances and accountability. Patterson, Assembly Minority Leader Kristen Olsen of Riverbank and Assemblymen Tom Lackey of Palmdale and Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita sent a letter Wednesday to Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins calling for her to issue subpoenas for documents and to appoint a special committee with the power to subpoena documents from the rail agency and to require witnesses to testify under oath.
The letter was sparked by a Los Angeles Times analysis published Sunday that analyzed the prospect for cost overruns for the high-speed train project’s initial operating segment between Merced and Burbank. The story referred to a confidential 2013 report, prepared by rail consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff and obtained by the Times, which projected the cost of the Merced-Burbank line at $40 billion – about $9 billion higher than the rail authority’s official estimate, repeated in reports to the Legislature, of $31 billion.
“We’re discovering that documents demonstrating the overruns (on the Merced-Burbank segment) would be $9 billion, and those documents were buried and remained secret,” Patterson told The Bee in an interview Thursday. “And the High-Speed Rail Authority came to the Legislature with cooked books. You can’t conclude anything else.”
“It does bring into serious question how truthful the High-Speed Rail Authority has been when it has come before me and the budget committee, when it came before me and the transportation committee,” Patterson added.
We’re discovering that documents demonstrating the overruns (on the Merced-Burbank segment) would be $9 billion, and those documents were buried and remained secret. And the high-speed rail authority came to the Legislature with cooked books. You can’t conclude anything else.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno
Patterson also lambasted the rail authority for soft-selling the reservations expressed last month by private-sector industries over the practicality of private investment and the financial viability of the project. The agency received 36 responses from companies in the rail, infrastructure, development and financial industries to a request for interest and ideas on how the project could attract private investment and be more efficiently developed.
After the rail authority released the responses under public records act requests from news media, “we now know that every single one of those private-sector firms raised serious doubts about the fact that they would get paid, serious doubts about how much public money is going to be in it, and those doubts were never made public,” Patterson said. “They are selective in the information they put out; they spin it in order to tell the story they want to tell.”
Patterson added, “That may be the practice of some in private business, but it cannot be the matter of operation in a public entity that has gotten its authority to act and to borrow and to spend by a vote of the people.”
Patterson said the cumulative questions over costs, financing and construction schedule underscore the need for an investigatory committee with subpoena power and sworn testimony under penalty of perjury. What he doesn’t know is whether Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, will consent to appointing a committee. “I think we’re dangerously close to what a one-party, dictatorial rule is beginning to look like,” said Patterson, who added that he has been repeatedly gaveled down by Democratic committee chairs in sessions when he raises pointed questions about the high-speed rail project.
“Failure to act on our request, I believe, makes the ruling party in the state of California a coequal participant in the cover-ups,” Patterson said. “I know these are strong words. … Failure to appoint the committee and give it the power it needs, I think, is a failure of duty and responsibility to transparency.”
There’s nothing covered up or buried. … The fact is that the costs to date have come down. That’s the reality of where we are in this program.
California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales
Jeff Morales, the rail authority’s CEO, dismissed the Republicans’ calls for an investigation as he addressed reporters at the Madera construction site Thursday. “I’m happy to talk to anybody anywhere. We don’t need to go to that extreme,” he said. “We’re very open and transparent about what we’re doing and how we’re going about it.”
Morales said he was uncertain exactly which Parsons Brinckerhoff document the Times referred to in its story, adding that “any suggestion that we’re hiding anything is just unfounded.”
In addition to detailed annual reports to the Legislature, Morales said oversight of the agency includes an independent peer review group appointed by the Legislature, and “the U.S. Government Accountability Office spent a year looking at all of our processes, including our cost estimates.”
“There’s nothing covered up or buried,” he said. “We look at options, whether it’s looking at alignments, whether it’s looking at environmental mitigation or whatever, we look and if something’s a problem, we change it and move on. The fact is that the costs to date have come down. That’s the reality of where we are in this program.”
Morales pointed to bids on the first two construction contracts awarded in the San Joaquin Valley that together “have come in several hundred million dollars below estimates” – the 29-mile Madera-Fresno segment that includes the Fresno River bridge, and a 65-mile stretch from south of Fresno to the Tulare-Kern county line. “We’re going to continue to revise, we’re going to continue to drive down the cost of delivering this program,” he added. “That’s a big part of our effort.”
Click to read more about California’s bullet-train plans on The Bee’s high-speed rail page
At the Madera site, as many as 100 workers have poured steel-reinforced foundations and are erecting the steel frameworks for columns that will support an elevated railway to span Raymond Road, the Fresno River and Highway 145. A total of 16 columns will be part of the structure. Each of the foundations is set 80 feet deep in the ground; each of the columns will require 30 cubic yards of concrete once pouring begins next month, said Hugo Mejia, the authority’s construction manager. “About $30 million will be spent on this viaduct alone here,” said Mejia, who added that the construction will take about 10 months to complete.
Morales said the work marks significant progress for the rail project. “It’s exciting to see things going up,” he said. “We’ve spent the last year or so underground, if you will, doing things that are crucial to getting construction going but that people aren’t able to see or may not be very excited about.”
“What you see here is the beginning of what will be a very exciting time for people in the Valley, to be able to see things happening,” he added.
Within the next couple of months, more visible work will start at other sites in the Madera-Fresno section, which reaches from about Avenue 17 at the northeast edge of Madera to American Avenue south of Fresno. Diana Gomez, the authority’s Central Valley regional director, said the next major construction components will include demolition of the Tuolumne Street bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks in downtown Fresno, and a new overpass to carry traffic on Avenue 12 over the future high-speed rail tracks about two miles east of Highway 99.
“Years from now, when we’re all long gone, people will look back and say, ‘This is where it started. This is where the first high-speed rail system in the United States began construction,” Morales said. “Now what we’re seeing is it rising up from the ground, really taking shape. And with that come jobs and opportunities. … The people who are working on this project are predominantly going to be from this area, so as dollars are being invested, they’re being invested in this region.”