As a Merced County supervisor and member of the San Joaquin Rail committee, I have attended California High-Speed Rail Authority meetings throughout the state and have worked with the authority and stakeholder groups throughout the Central Valley for more than five years.
Let's just start out with saying that I do agree with at least one of Eric Christen's statements in his May 1 commentary ("Backroom deals tarnish California's bullet train project) in The Bee: California high-speed rail is the 21st century is the vision of America's future. I think he makes a good point. High-speed rail will help take California to the next level and provide an innovative and sustainable transportation project that will benefit all Californians.
Over the years a great deal of the criticism of the authority was directed at miscommunication and a perceived arrogance that would run roughshod over local interests. Some of this criticism was valid. But in the last two years, there has been a sea change in the authority's approach to stakeholders, transparency and public responses. That change is what has allowed so much recent progress in the project.
Regarding the other accusations against the rail authority, I couldn't disagree more. The facts don't support his statements.
His comments about board meetings and media inquiries are vague and without merit.
More importantly, let's move into the larger accusations that the authority somehow bent the rules to name Tutor Saliba/Zachry/Parsons as the contractor because they wanted to select someone from California. This is ludicrous. All bidders were aware of the rules more than five months before submitting their proposals and had equal opportunity to submit a winning proposal. Further, the authority had no way of knowing who would submit proposals.
Is he arguing that a bid that is under budget and will generate thousands of jobs for Californians is a bad thing? We have some of the worst job numbers in the nation, and I know a lot of people in the community that are looking for long-term, well paying jobs. What might he say if the project bid was over budget, or that the jobs would be flooding in from out of state? Would Christen and his allies have a brand new set of objections? Or would they be celebrating the outsourcing of jobs and running over budget?
He also accuses the authority of underhanded dealings ranging from the Community Benefits Agreement, which has been approved by the Federal Railroad Administration, and announcing the bid changes. This information has been available for months on the authority's website and has been covered during Board of Directors presentations.
For someone who is entirely sure of the authority's dishonesty on every aspect of this project, Christen has not been particularly diligent about checking the facts before he makes his statements. Peppering his commentary with words like "cynic" and "coincidence" and "cronyism" does not necessarily ensure accuracy and truth-telling. It sounds like rhetoric to me.
At the end of his commentary, Christen says that all large projects like this one deserve strong leadership, good oversight and public scrutiny to ensure that they are being done is the best way possible to the least expense of the taxpayer. Once again, we are in agreement.
It's been my experience that the current authority leadership is committed to working with members of the community to ensure that this first-of-a-kind project is done in a way that benefits all residents of the state and provides as minimum of an impact as possible. The current authority leadership has taken steps to improve communication and cooperation with all the stakeholders. This attitude of cooperation and partnership has been the hallmark of the authority's work during the past two years.
So it's on us as Californians to get the facts, attend the board of directors' meetings to see for ourselves what's going on, and learn more about this project that will benefit us with jobs, a cleaner environment and an alternative form of transportation that will keep us from having to pave over every inch of the state for our ever increasing population.
Californias high-speed rail project has been discussed since the early 1990s and evolved into a bond proposal that voters approved in all 2008. Project supporters now say that by 2029, a high-speed rail system will run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin. There has been controversy every step of the way and it continues even as the authority is buying land and hopes to have construction begin this summer. We have run numerous commentaries, pro and con, about high-speed rail and offer two more today. The Modesto Bees official position, in a nutshell: High-speed rail is an interesting idea, but this isnt the right time or the right plan.