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Davis' high-speed rail shift faces rough track in Legislature

(The following Associated Press article by Steve Lawrence appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.)

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Gray Davis' plan to save some money by merging California's ambitious high-speed rail project with the Department of Transportation has hit some rough track in the state Legislature.

The Legislature's budget analyst is recommending that lawmakers reject the proposal, saying the better move would be to leave high-speed rail under an independent board and cut some of the department's funding.

The attorney general's office has also sounded alarms about Davis' plan, saying it could create administrative problems and delay completion of an environmental impact report on the 700-mile, $26 billion rail project.

A vocal supporter of high-speed rail, state Sen. Dean Florez, is more critical, saying Davis' plan would undermine efforts to persuade voters to approve a $9.95 billion bond measure next year to help finance the first leg of the project.

"If this project does not win on the ballot next year it's dead," says Florez, D-Shafter. "I don't believe anyone out there wants to give Caltrans $10 billion to build a system when they have shown no history of being successful in rail."

Sen. Kevin Murray, a Culver City Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, doubts lawmakers will go along with the governor's proposal.

"It doesn't save enough money to match the amount of havoc it's going to cause," he says.

Florez has introduced legislation that would go in the other direction by taking away the department's control over conventional, intercity rail service and giving it to the high-speed rail board.

The administration says making the rail board, formally known as the California High-Speed Rail Authority, part of the department would save $589,000.

The board's executive director post, now occupied by a part-timer who is planning to retire, would be eliminated, but three other staffers could transfer to the department, officials say.

"It's simply a consolidation to help ... alleviate the (budget) shortfall," says Anita Gore, a Department of Finance spokeswoman.

Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill uses a lower "savings" figure - $400,000 - and says most of that would come about by redirecting $250,000 in excess Caltrans funds to the high-speed rail project. She suggests lawmakers shift that money to the authority to help cover its staff costs.

Gore says placing the board in the department wouldn't eliminate its power to run the high-speed rail program, which envisions a system linking California's major cities with trains running at top speeds of more than 200 mph.

But the analyst and the attorney general's office say the shift would create administrative problems, including who would hire and fire staff and what would happen if the board and Caltrans officials disagreed on some aspect of the project.

"The proposal would have the practical effect of limiting the board's ability to carry out its mission while still holding it responsible for doing so," the analyst says.

Hill also says "Caltrans does not possess any expertise in high-speed rail development or planning that it can bring to the project."

For that reason, the attorney general's office says if the shift goes through the board should delay issuing its environmental impact report to ensure inexperienced staff work doesn't make the document more vulnerable to court challenges.

A draft EIR is due in August, with the final document scheduled for release in December.

Mehdi Morshed, the board's executive director and a former state Senate aide, says lawmakers created the authority as an independent board to prevent the project from becoming bogged down in the Caltrans bureaucracy.

"If most of the work we've done so far had to be done within the structure of Caltrans, we would still not have a plan," he says. "There would be too many people involved, too many checks and balances."

But a Caltrans spokesman, Dennis Trujillo, says concerns about the department's ability to develop rail projects are "20-year-old issues. They are not representative of today's Caltrans. We have the skills, knowledge and capability to deliver any project."

He said a request from Morshed last month for the loan of a couple of Caltrans staffers with experience in engineering or environmental affairs and in dealing with government agencies and the public demonstrates the board's need for the department's assistance.

But Morshed characterized his letter as merely a request for extra help for a staff overburdened by a hiring freeze.

"Basically we just needed someone who can do writing, who is familiar with the engineering process. ... We didn't say we needed a specialist in this area or that area," he said.

A couple of rail advocate groups split on the proposal.

The Train Riders Association of California, a group of 1,500 rail advocates that has differed with the board on routing of the high-speed trains, supports the shift.

"Caltrans is always a mixed bag," says the group's executive director, Alan Miller. "But I'm convinced that they want to do something good with the high-speed rail project."

The group's president, Richard Tolmach, is a rail consultant for Caltrans, but Miller says Tolmach is "very critical of Caltrans when it is appropriate."

The 2,500-member Rail Passenger Association of California opposes the governor's proposal and supports Florez's bill.

"What needs to be done is a rail agency and a highway agency," says Richard Silver, the group's executive director. "Certainly there is enough rail going on in the state that there needs to be one agency focused on that."

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

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