Backroom deals tarnish California bullet train project

April 30, 2013 

Interior view of a concept for a large high speed rail station. Nothing has been designed yet, these are just ideas.

MERCED SUN-STAR

If the California high-speed passenger train for the 21st century is the vision of America's future, then the future is blind to cronyism.

Critics of the project have claimed for four years that the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) conducts its business through backroom deals carried out by executive personnel.

Board meetings often seem to be shams. Inquiries from journalists in traditional news media go unanswered, and critics in new electronic media report hassles in getting records about controversial issues.

One of the many examples of behind-the-scenes bullet train games involves a Project Labor Agreement.

The High-Speed Rail Authority required the five prequalified prime contractors to consent to sign this union agreement as a condition of winning the contract for the construction of the Madera to Fresno segment.

The board never voted to negotiate or approve the PLA. It was developed and executed behind the scenes, probably to avoid public controversy. It's unclear if the Federal Railroad Administration ever approved it as required, because documentation is not available.

A cynic would suggest that the presence of the head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California on the HSR board might have encouraged the project labor agreement.

Nevertheless, state union leaders knew how the bread was buttered. Union-affiliated organizations comprised seven of the top 10 donors, including the top five, to pass Proposition 1A in 2008.

Meanwhile, the current CEO of the rail authority transferred to the job in 2012 from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project management firm for the high-speed rail. That company ranked sixth on the list of donors to the campaign to pass Proposition 1A.

Needless to say, Parsons Brinckerhoff wisely invested $76,500 in a ballot measure that allows the state to borrow $10 billion for the bullet train by selling bonds to investors.

Now, the latest underhanded, unaccountable action of the rail authority is the recommendation to award the prime contract for the Madera to Fresno segment to a company with the lowest technical score in the "best value" criteria for bidding.

The bidding syndicate of Tutor Saliba/Zachry/Parsons beat out other joint ventures, including companies with actual experience building high-speed rail projects.

Based on the uproar from public agency representatives and California construction industry officials, Tutor Saliba has extensive experience in winning low bids and then submitting change orders during the project to get paid more money.

Another partner, Parsons Corporation, makes money administering union Project Labor Agreements for large infrastructure projects in California, so it will be comfortable with the unionized construction workforce on HSR.

But what is particularly outrageous about the apparent winning bidder is that the executive personnel for the High-Speed Rail Authority changed the criteria for assessing the bidders during the two-stage process, without any public notice or board vote concerning the change.

Technical experience as a weighted factor in the bidder evaluations was supplanted with a new system that just happened to allow Tutor Saliba to get the best score among the five bidders.

Coincidence? Perhaps, although the rail authority seemed exceptionally excited to announce the California roots of the winning conglomerate and its bid amount, which was below estimates.

In the meantime, critics of HSR suspect that the four losing bidders may be compelled to avoid public complaining about the bidding process in order to get reimbursed up to $2 million each for the expense of preparing their losing bids.

Backroom deals with union bosses? Secretive changes to the bidding process? A public body in charge of the most expensive project in American history that hides from the public? Taxpayers deserve better.

Christen is executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction. He is the sponsor of www.californiahighspeedrailscam.com.

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