State senator proposes restructuring leadership of California’s high-speed rail system

The leadership structure of the agency charged with building California’s 800-mile high-speed rail system would be completely overhauled under legislation introduced Friday by a state senator.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) wants to recast the make-up of the board at the quasi-independent California High-Speed Rail Authority and move the operation directly under the business branch of state government.

Lowenthal, a former chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, has criticized what he sees as a lack of accountability at the agency, which has been the subject of several critical audits in recent years. He expects to head a new Senate select committee focusing on the bullet train project that will be announced soon.

The authority is slated to receive billions in state and federal money and to begin work next year on a $43-billion section of the project that would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains traveling up to 220 mph.

Among other things, the legislation would require new appointments to the board, with members required to have a range of experience in such areas as construction law, financing, engineering, environmental policy and local government. The rail agency also would be brought under the umbrella of the governor’s secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing.


Prospects for passage were not clear, but Lowenthal said the measure is partly intended to engage legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown in a reexamination of how the project should proceed.

High-speed rail “is the most complex transportation project ever undertaken by the state,” Lowenthal said. “As a supporter, I believe the project would be better served if the board members had specific expertise.”

Jeffrey Barker, the rail authority’s deputy executive director, said the Legislature is a critical partner on the project. “If there’s a bill whose aim is to be constructive in helping make the vision of high-speed rail a reality,” he added, “then we are eager to partner with and work together with its author.”

In the past, the agency has defended its efforts, saying its tradition of operating with a lean staff and reliance on outside contractors has made it effective and agile.

Current board members include an array of influential former state and federal officials, including former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, former U.S. Rep. Lynn Schenk, former Assemblyman Tom Umberg and David Crane, a top financial advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Kopp said that placing the rail agency under the executive branch of state government “is worthy of discussion and debate” because it might give the project a stronger political advocate.

Lowenthal’s bill also would set new ethics guidelines. Among provisions that would be included, he said Friday, is a requirement that all project communications with board members be publicly disclosed. Also, board members would be prohibited from having financial ties to those seeking or doing business with the agency, even if they abstained from voting on matters related to those interests, he said.

“It’s common sense,” he said. The Times reported in October that two authority officials, board chairman Pringle and former board member Richard Katz, had received tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees from entities with interests in authority decisions. Both said they had not mixed their public duties and private business interests.