After previous articles on the subject of politics, I received a couple of personal notes advising me that I was naïve about the motivation behind the Republican Congressional representatives opposing the rail project, or as one person put it, there are other motives behind opposing ObamaRail.
Personally, I am an independent so I have no ax to grind with either party but I still believe that Republican representatives can look at this project in a more objective way because they do not have party leaders pushing the project as part of their political legacy. However, I do concede there could be additional reasons why members of the Republican Party want the train project to fail other than the project’s shortcomings.
It is true that some Republican California legislative members voted yes for the project before the public vote in November 2008. Congressman Jeff Denham freely admits he did. Back then, along with many voters, it was about the concept of high-speed rail and not the particular execution of the California project.
New Development on the DC political front
Congressman David Valadao from Hanford is now being investigated by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_for_Responsibility_and_Ethics_in_Washington , Wikipedia shows this is a private organization, no connection to the government, and is the Democrats’ answer to Judicial Watch. Judicial Watch has a reputation for targeting Democrats. While CREW claims they are bi-partisan, it appears the far majority of their investigations are against Republicans.
We do know the High-Speed Rail (HSR) Authority was very unhappy with an amendment Congressman Valadao put forward for the transportation bill, which would not allow funding for California’s high-speed rail project. Supposedly they are on the hunt for private investment and the perception of this action might cause more difficulties to attract investment. There is no official answer as to who tipped off CREW to investigate but Dan Richard, Chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority said he never heard of the organization before the filing of this complaint. Perhaps the investigation stems from other politicians in DC or frankly from anybody. Their website invites visitors to “send us a tip” but somehow it feels like revenge because of the transportation amendment.
CREW, http://www.citizensforethics.org/legal-filings/entry/crew-calls-on-oce-to-investigate-california-congressman-david-valadao claims that Valadao abused his power when he put forward an amendment to bill in the amount of $44.1 billion for federal transportation and housing programs for fiscal 2014. Valadao’s amendment would not allow California’s rail project to be funded, which still has to make it through the Democratic dominated Senate. CREW claims that he did not notify members of the Appropriation Committee that he was a land owner. This quote comes from their website:
“It seems Rep. Valadao has joined the ranks of those who come to Washington primarily to advance their own financial interests,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. That’s quite a misleading statement. It sounds like Valadao is out to make money but on the contrary. Valadao’s family dairy farm is minimally impacted regardless of which route was chosen however he and hundreds of his constituents stand to lose land and functionality of their businesses.
It appears from articles that were written prior to Valadao’s election, he is doing what his constituents elected him to do. Let’s be real, if you were “for” the project in Kings County, you’d be in the minority. Statewide polls show the public has lost interest and confidence in the project, it’s not just a Kings County issue.
Valadao’s office responded that the “Congressman has submitted all of the proper documentation of his economic interests, including property.” They also note that “In Kings County, which represents just one of the many counties affected by HSR, there are at least 600 properties, consisting of tens of thousands of acres that could be impacted by proposed routes. Valadao’s office states that “not only has there been public opposition to this project but multiple counties, cities and municipalities within the state have also officially opposed California High-Speed Rail. In the Central Valley they include: Madera, Orange, Kings, Tulare and Kern Counties.”
Instead of attempting to create an issue over Valadao’s land holdings, someone should be investigating who owns the land along the primary routes proposed and who might actually cash in, rather than lose money, along the selected routes throughout the state. Where there’s a project of this size, there’s big money to be made. Follow the money.
The politics surrounding the Peer Review Process in California:
Only one senator, Mark DeSaulnier, out of the trio of senators who both voted no for the funding for high-speed rail and knew the most about the HSR project remains in the California State Legislature today. Senators Alan Lowenthal and Joseph Simitian left due to term limits. Much to everyone’s surprise, DeSaulnier still remains the Chair of the powerful Senate Transportation committee. He has openly alluded to being on shaky grounds when he made comments during a Senate Transportation hearing November 28, 2012. DeSaulnier said he “is Chair for a while longer, if he doesn’t cause too much trouble.”
Peer Review Meeting at the Senate Transportation Committee November 28, 2012:
The subject of meeting, conducted during the Thanksgiving holidays, was an incredible review of the Bay Bridge project and the High-Speed Rail peer review process. The Bay Bridge has been estimated to cost the taxpayer more than $12 billion dollars with interest payments, with its more elaborate design compared with original estimates for a simpler plan costing less than $1 billion. This does not bode well if the same process tracks for the California High-Speed Rail project particularly with all the warnings the Legislature has had about lack of capital, questionable operating costs, ridership and construction costs.
Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), was a state witness on the subject of the peer review process. She prepared a document for the meeting, which showed the high-speed rail project was shelling out more than $423,980 for the Ridership Peer Review Panel and disclosed incredible conflicts with the chairman Frank Koppelman (pictured), who was a dear friend of high-level executive of Cambridge Systematics, the company who did the ridership numbers. Koppelman received more than half of the fees. This number is at least 9 months old. The group continues to meet so the dollars paid to the group and to Koppelman are certainly significantly higher now. http://stran.senate.ca.gov/sites/stran.senate.ca.gov/files/CARRD%20Peer%20Review%20and%20the%20CHSRA.pdf
Just a reminder, this is not the Independent Peer review group. There are several peer review groups. This one, the Ridership Peer Review Panel was hand selected by the High-Speed Rail Authority after the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) group from the University of California at Berkeley put the kibosh on Authority’s ridership model saying the model wasn’t fit for public policy making. Note: This ITS group is the official Transportation consulting group for the California Senate. The HSR Authority did not accept the criticism of the ITS group and questioned their methods, academia vs. real world. Despite ITS objections, no one in the Legislature stopped their funding. The Rail Authority’s answer to correct criticism was establishing their very own Ridership Peer Review Panel. The CEO Roelof van Ark basically told the panel members to look forward and not backward and they could only talk to him.
Alexis also gave her opinion about the Independent Peer Review group, the group selected by the combination of legislative and government agency sources which the law requires. This group, unlike the Ridership group does not receive an hourly consulting fee. Their expenses are for the most part funded. There have been questions of conflicts of interest within this group and questions as to the motivations of some of the members of the group. Are they independent transportation consultants, could they develop relationships that they could cash in later?
If you wish to hear all of Elizabeth Alexis’ testimony (audio only, it was not videoed) on both the generic peer review process as well as some very specific concerns about the high-speed rail peer review process here is the testimony personally collected from the Senate Transportation Committee. It was not on line on Calchannel. Around 11 min 50 seconds Alexis starts her review of both high-speed rail peer panel and the Independent Peer Review Group. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWoe1FFvRyg
Its really astounding testimony about conflicts and issues that plague the project. She questions where these committees are coming from. Are they really peer review committees or advisory groups?
The Independent Peer Review Group (PRG), the group established by statute, has had their ups and downs with the HSR Authority. January 2012 the PRG came out with a critical report on the Draft Business plan dated November 2011. The timing was terrible; a bad auditor’s report had just been published and out comes this incredibly damaging report from the PRG. They said, “…the ICS [initial construction segment in the Central Valley] as planned is not a very high-speed railway (VHSR), as it lacks electrification, a VHSR train control system and a VHSR compatible communication system. Therefore it appears not to meet the requirements of enabling State legislation.” It also told the Legislature, “Contingent upon the release of the final business plan; they could not recommend funding the project to the legislature. http://www.cahsrprg.com/files/CommentsonCHSRA2010FundingPlan.pdf
The High-Speed Rail Authority went ballistic with the Peer Review Group’s scathing comments. A big press hoopla ensued. They were officially at war.
The Rail Authority issued a 10-page report in which they pointed out all the issues with the Peer Review’s report. They say, “ While some of the recommendations in the Peer Review Group report merit consideration, by and large this report is deeply flawed, in some areas misleading and its conclusions are unfounded.” http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Umberg2-letter-about-the-PRG.pdf Frankly anyone who challenges the Authority’s plans is criticized.
Some say a deal was made with the Independent Peer Review Group (PRG) shortly after Jan 2012. Whatever it was, comparing the PRG commentary concerning the draft in November 2011 business plan, issued January 3, 2012 and the final April 2012 Business plan was night and day. The hostility seemed to soften substantially between the two groups after the rail authority agreed to invest in the bookends, the areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles. During a three-month period there were visits by U.S. Transportation Director, Ray LaHood to the Governor, there were said to be calls from the Governor to key parties. Suddenly all was calm, all was good.
After the Authority made the major change to develop the project starting in the Central Valley heading South in the April 2012 business plan, moved to a blended plan [using current rail infrastructure in Northern CA], promising $1.1 billion to bookend projects and dropping the price tag from roughly $100 billion to $68 billion, the Authority won enough votes in the senate to pass the first appropriation and won substantially less critical words about the project from the Independent Peer Review group.
http://www.cahsrprg.com/files/comments_on_draft.pdf The report still indicates there are critical components that are problematic such as lack of future funding, unverified ridership numbers and questionable cost/benefit ratios and the accuracy of alternative investment numbers. But the report itself, dated March 21, 2012, very delayed in its publication, was more like a “coming soon commercial,” for the next business plan which was due in about 7 days.. http://usedview.com/article/the-peer-review-group-report-and-a-change-tune
At a subsequent state senate meeting, then CEO Van Ark asked then chairman of the PRG, Will Kempton, if he could refer to him as a colleague. Kempton agreed. Since then both resigned from working on the project. Kempton was at the time the CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in Southern California, whose board eventually voiced its intense dislike of the HSR project. May 14, 2012 marks the date of an extremely contentious OCTA meeting which Kempton participated in. http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/OCTA-Board-Transcript-5-14-2012.pdf
And how independent is the independent peer review group? Is the group attempting to follow Prop 1A or have they become trusted advisors, basically part of the team, giving ideas to the Rail Authority board about what they think will work. http://usedview.com/article/how-independent-is-the-independent-peer-review-group
In general one has to wonder what is the value of peer review groups if they go along with project leaders because of intense political pressure and act as an advisory group with project leaders? Who’s checking their work if they’re not acting independently but in concert with project leaders?