High-Speed Rail

Farmer compares CA high-speed rail plans to Holocaust, then apologizes

The California High-Speed Rail Authority continued efforts Tuesday to start work on its first section in the central San Joaquin Valley, approving agreements for up to $268 million for unexpected costs, utility relocation and freight railroad collaboration.

But Tuesday's votes came only after one rail opponent compared the authority's plans in the Valley to Nazi atrocities against Jews in World War II -- a comparison that drew a sharp rebuke from the board's chairman, followed by an apology.

Kings County farmer John Tos, who is suing the rail agency over its statewide plan, made the remarks early in the authority's board meeting, during a portion set aside for public comments.

Tos was describing his disappointment with the agency's ongoing work to start construction in the Fresno-Madera area, even after the judge in his lawsuit ruled last month that the authority's 2011 business plan violated Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by voters in 2008.

While Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny has yet to impose any legal remedy or court order to block the rail authority's work, Tos told the rail board Tuesday that "for some reason, Gov. Brown and you on this board think you're above the law, that big government is above the common folk like I am."

"It reminds me of Hitler in the 1930s when he set out to annihilate the Jews and take over the world," Tos added. "That's what you folks are doing to the San Joaquin Valley. You're going to annihilate, you're going to destroy ..."

That's when board chairman Dan Richard, visibly agitated, interrupted Tos.

"Hold on a second," Richard said. "You have a right to challenge and criticize our actions, to make recommendations and to tell us that our policies, our procedures, our decisions are wrong. It is our job to listen.

"But I will say to you, sir, that that last comment is inappropriate and unacceptable," he added.

Tos was contrite after the scolding. "I accept that and I apologize," Tos replied.

The board eventually got down to business after more than an hour and a half of public comments.

Board members unanimously approved establishing a contingency of $160 million to cover potential cost overruns from unanticipated expenses or risks associated with the first construction segment, a 29-mile stretch from east of Madera to the south end of Fresno.

The agency already has awarded a $985 million contract to a consortium comprised of Tutor Perini Corp. of Sylmar, Zachry Construction of Texas and Pasadena-based Parsons Corp., to design and build the segment.

Jon Tapping, the rail agency's risks manager, said the $160 million is a reasonable figure to allow for unforeseen circumstances that the contracting team might encounter, including higher-than-expected costs for materials, unanticipated delays in schedule or construction conditions that differ from those upon which contractors based their bids.

Authority CEO Jeff Morales said that while the contingency represents the best current estimate of potential risks to the project cost and schedule, the agency will work to reduce risks and costs as they are identified.

The contingency amount is a just-in-case figure, authority representatives said, and not a hard-and-fast amount to be spent. Richard said the figure is based on sophisticated computer modeling of a range of risks to the project's cost.

"This is not to say that nothing can't go wrong," Richard said. "But it is to say that we're very focused on the issue of risk management and not moving forward on some sort of Pollyanna expectation that everything is going to be OK."

Utility relocation

The board also granted Morales the authority to enter five-year agreements with AT&T and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for extensive utility relocation work in the Fresno-Madera construction section.

Under the agreements, the agency will reimburse AT&T up to $18.4 million for the company to move fiber optic lines and other communication equipment that sits in the path of the high-speed tracks.

PG&E will receive up to $50.4 million for its work to relocate gas lines, electricity distribution lines and other facilities to make way for the tracks.

Most of the work to relocate other utilities will be handled by the contractor for the Madera-Fresno section, but "these two companies prefer to move their own facilities," said Thomas Fellenz, the authority's chief legal counsel. "They want to have control of that themselves. They have the skill, the equipment and the know-how to do so."

Freight rail access

Board members agreed to allow Morales to sign a five-year deal for up to $39.4 million with the Union Pacific Railroad. Under the agreement, the high-speed rail agency will be able to go onto Union Pacific property for construction of the adjacent high-speed tracks.

The deal reimburses Union Pacific for any temporary relocation of its tracks or signal systems while the high-speed tracks are built and a dedicated crew of flag persons through construction.

It also allows the freight carrier to participate in the design of what Frank Vacca, the authority's chief program manager, called "intrusion barriers" - walls, berms and other structures to prevent potential accidents on either set of tracks from interfering with operations on the other line.