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State lawmaker calls for replacing bullet-train board with members having more 'specific expertise'

February 18, 2011 |  1:05 pm

Alan_lowenthal 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 key state senator.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) wants to replace all current board members 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 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.

The authority is slated to receive billions in state and federal money and 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 miles per hour.

Among other things, the legislation would require a new crop of board members to have a range of experience in areas such 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 immediately clear.

"The high-speed rail project 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."
Authority board members and a spokesman were not immediately available for comment.

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.
Lowenthal’s bill also would set new ethics guidelines. Board appointees and new agency employees would be banned from serving if they received substantial income from a project contractor in the previous two years. Board members also would not be allowed to take a job with a contractor for at least two years after leaving office.

“It’s common sense that members or employees of the authority do not have financial ties to companies doing business with the Authority,” Lowenthal said.


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-- Rich Connell and Dan Weikel

Photo: Alan Lowenthal

Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times