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High-speed rail debate eases

(The following article by Lesli A. Maxwell was published in the Fresno Bee on April 7.)

SACRAMENTO -- The turf battle that broke out in January over which state agency ultimately will build and run a 700-mile bullet train system in California is showing signs of simmering down.

Gov. Davis' cost-saving proposal to move the High Speed Rail Authority into the state Department of Transportation set off two months of sniping, mostly from critics who said the merger would doom an upcoming $9.95 billion bond measure to build the train system's first phase.

Davis officials say the proposal would save $600,000 in staff salaries and benefits -- a sliver of the Democratic governor's solution to a budget shortfall that could reach $35 billion over 15 months.

The Legislative Analyst's Office agreed there might be modest savings, but said the
program's accountability and effectiveness would be harmed.

But with signs that lawmakers don't like Davis' plan, officials in the two agencies and the governor's office are negotiating how to save money without jeopardizing the ambitious project, said Rod Diridon, chairman of the nine-member rail authority.

"What we've been talking about is the possibility of Caltrans assisting us with funding but without making any changes in management," said Diridon, who characterized the talks as informal.

Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said all kinds of budget fine-tuning is under way, but downplayed any notion that the governor is ready to scrap his plan.

"The governor's proposal is still the one on the table," McLean said.

The $25 billion rail proposal calls for trains that would travel up to 220 mph and deliver passengers from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in 21/2 hours. The first phase -- 400 miles long -- will be built through the Central Valley to connect the Bay Area with Southern California.

Advocates of keeping the rail agency independent have embraced SB 91, a bill written by Sen. Dean Florez to counter Davis' plan.

The Shafter Democrat said he will drop his bill only if Davis abandons his proposal.

It was Florez's bill -- which is more than a counter to Davis' plan with its call to create a new agency to manage high-speed rail and passenger rail lines managed now by Caltrans -- that stirred the conflict.

Florez argues that Caltrans shouldn't have authority over any rail projects because of its poor record in overseeing Amtrak lines such as the San Joaquin route between Sacramento and Bakersfield.

Diridon and other rail authority members also expressed misgivings about merging with an agency that focuses on building highways.

They were emboldened by an opinion from Attorney General Bill Lockyer's office that said a transfer would disrupt completion of environmental studies.

But Caltrans officials say their agency and record have been unfairly and inaccurately portrayed by Florez and other critics. They also say that the rail authority -- with only four paid staffers -- needs their help to shepherd the state's most expensive and ambitious public works project.

As recently as Feb. 27, Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the rail authority, sent a letter to Caltrans requesting staff assistance with the project's environmental review, as well as help with information technology.

In a letter to Florez this month, Caltrans Director Jeff Morales cited Morshed's request and wrote that "it is in sharp contrast to public statements suggesting that departmental involvement in the ongoing work of the High Speed Rail Authority would be detrimental to success. Rather, it makes it clear that specialized departmental involvement is necessary to that success."

Morshed said in an interview that it makes sense to tap Caltrans resources and expertise, especially during tight budget years. His main concern over a transfer is how the rail authority would be able to direct a staff that is employed by Caltrans.

"The biggest question about this proposal is governance," Morshed said. "Who makes the ultimate decision?"

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo said the conflict has been "much ado about nothing."

"Our goal all along has been to provide the expertise and resources and deliver the project," he said. "This is going to take unprecedented resources, none of which one agency can do alone."

Some rail advocates hope the governor's proposal sticks, saying it may help take some of the politics out of the bullet train project.

"We think this is well-intended," said Ken Gosting, a member of a group known as Transportation Involves Everyone. "[Davis] is breaking up a club. To move it to Caltrans breaks up the chummy, political atmosphere."

All nine members of the rail authority are political appointees. Diridon, a Davis appointee, was criticized last year when he hosted a fund-raiser for the governor's campaign one day after the Democrat approved the bond measure.

Florez's mother, Fran Florez, was appointed to the authority last year by Senate President John Burton, D-San Francisco.

Former state Sen. Jim Costa -- a champion of high-speed rail who wrote the bond measure last year -- called the dispute over Davis' proposal "a waste of time."

Still, Costa, a Democrat from Fresno, said any serious discussions about a merger should come after the rail authority finishes its environmental impact report, which is due out in August.

"What's taken place is unfortunate, but I don't believe it's irreparable," Costa said last week. "All of our focus now needs to be on getting the bond measure passed. All of this becomes an esoteric conversation if the bond doesn't pass."

The bond is set for the November 2004 ballot.

Monday, April 7, 2003

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