Some tough news recently hit the state’s high-speed-rail project.
First, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, the Republican from Fresno, last month wrote the state agency that oversees politicians and public officials with concerns that a member of the rail project’s board had a financial conflict of interest, or at the least, an appearance of one. It was the second time this year Patterson had brought such a concern to the Fair Political Practices Commission. In the first instance, the rail project’s deputy chief operating officer had to step aside while his case came under investigation.
Second, the Los Angeles Times published a story that certain legislators in Southern California and the Bay Area are now considering using their voting clout to redirect state funds from the bullet train to rail projects in their areas. The lawmakers want to alleviate the freeway congestion that so frequently stymies their region.
Taken together, the developments are new fodder for detractors who think high-speed-rail is a colossal boondoggle that should be stopped. But, if anything, they should focus the rail board even more on getting the project done while making sure its leadership is completely ethical in all its dealings. The big structures under construction in the Valley to carry the bullet train must get finished and put to use, so the region does not end up with Stonehenge-like monuments.
Patterson used public-record requests to unearth what he considers to be improper activities by the rail board member, Ernest Camacho, and now suspended deputy chief operating officer Roy Hill.
Camacho is president and CEO of Pacifica Services, a Pasadena-based business that does engineering, construction management and environmental work. According to Patterson, earlier this year Pacifica became a subcontractor on a project to extend a light-rail commuter line in Los Angeles. The main firm on that project, Tutor Perini, is also the lead contractor on the first phase of high-speed rail in the Valley.
So a member of the high-speed-rail board who is supposed to oversee Tutor Perini also is under contract to Tutor Perini on a different project.
Additionally, Patterson says Camacho asked high-speed-rail staff to analyze how the bullet train project would benefit the Los Angeles region. Patterson thinks this is a first step toward moving HSR money from the Valley to Southern California before all the work here is completed.
Hill was suspended in June after it was discovered he had signed a $51 million change order for one of the high-speed construction teams. Part of that team is a company called Jacobs Engineering; Hill owned between $100,000 and $1 million in Jacobs Engineering stock, Patterson said.
Staying on track
The smoke from these possible unethical dealings could wind up being black; the FPPC is yet to rule. If that agency finds there were improper dealings, that will be a stain on the rail authority. Yet there are other factors that could help high-speed rail stay on track.
For one thing, federal funding was already committed to the project for construction in the Valley. The authority has to stay focused on the Valley to fulfill that requirement. Total cost supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom: $20 billion.
And the authority’s latest business plan — its blueprint — calls for rail service from the San Joaquin Valley to Silicon Valley. The authority board has not changed that plan.
Detractors of high-speed-rail are many. Many conservatives oppose it because a Democratic governor was its champion (Jerry Brown). Parochial lawmakers want funding for their pet transportation projects.
But The Bee’s Editorial Board has said the new concept of high-speed-rail put forth by Newsom — a Valley system of bullet trains connecting to traditional rail lines to the Bay Area, and ultimately Southern California — would help transform the Valley’s economy and culture. That continues to be The Bee’s view.
High-speed rail has been a major jobs generator for the San Joaquin Valley. The authority reports that in the 2017-18 fiscal year, 9,400 full-time jobs were created statewide by the project; many of them were in the Valley. In Fresno County, half of the jobs added in that year were related to high-speed rail; 30 percent were directly tied to it. Fresno has enjoyed low unemployment in the last year; high-speed rail construction jobs are a healthy contributor.
So, despite the recent rough patches, supporters of HSR should make their views known to Newsom, Patterson and Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, the Fresno Democrat who is an ex oficio member of the HSR board. It is imperative that nothing detract from getting the project now being built in the Valley to the finish line.