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Rail Agency in O.C. May Face a Shake-Up

March 13, 2004|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

A struggling rail project in Placentia that is at least $10.7 million in arrears might be required to replace its management to qualify for emergency funding from the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Denis R. Bilodeau, an OCTA board member, said he will request an overhaul of OnTrac's management as a condition of a $5.6-million loan the rail agency is seeking.

The $500-million OnTrac project, which is a joint-powers agency set up by the city, calls for putting new crossings at 11 busy streets and placing tracks below ground level in a concrete trench to increase train speed and safety.

OnTrac has been stung by the delay and potential loss of $11 million in state funds, and by criticism from community activists that it has overspent on private consultants who are unrelated to engineering and construction.

Strapped city officials say they owe a major contractor $5.1 million and need to borrow from OCTA to pay for Placentia Avenue property bought a few months ago from Office Depot for OnTrac's right-of-way.

"It is a good project, but I have no confidence that the current management can pull it off," Bilodeau said. "We are going to take a real hard look at this. I want to put a stop to the gravy train" for consultants.

Bilodeau sits on OCTA's regional planning and highways committee as well as the administration and finance committee. Each panel is made up of five board members.

OnTrac's loan request is scheduled to go before both committees in the coming weeks. It could be rejected or passed on to OCTA's board of directors for consideration with or without Bilodeau's conditions.

The request might face a fight at the committee level because of questions about the city's ability to repay the loan and whether OnTrac has used its funds responsibly.

City records show that since fiscal 2001, OnTrac has spent at least $6.5 million for more than two dozen lobbyists, public relations people, attorneys, researchers, accountants and management consultants.

The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., a private nonprofit organization that supplies advisors to OnTrac, has been paid at least $1.2 million over the past two years.

Another consulting firm, Emerson and Associates, has been paid almost $1 million for lobbying and government relations. The project's executive director, Christopher Becker, the city's former public works director who became a private consultant, has made as much as $500,000 a year in salary.

The city "needs to look at OnTrac's management and get a firmer grip on the project," said Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby, an OCTA board member who sits on the highway committee. "Hopefully, the city will be moving in that direction."

Supporters of OnTrac's reliance on private consultants say the city does not have enough staff to handle the project and the consultants are needed to attract state and federal funding.

Becker, whose job might be threatened in a management shakeup, has defended his work, saying he has been involved with the project from the beginning and has developed substantial expertise dealing with railroads.

"Our problems are not something OnTrac did. This is something the state did," said Placentia City Councilman Scott P. Brady, a former OnTrac board member. "We've been trying to tighten things up. The city is trying to do a good job."

Last year, the City Council reduced Becker's hourly rate and rewrote his contract. On Tuesday, the council is scheduled to discuss performance standards for the project's consultants and deferrals of their pay until those standards are met.

Brady said Bilodeau's proposal that management should be replaced as a prerequisite for the OCTA loan goes too far. The city, he said, only wants the money for one piece of property in the entire project.

"They seem to be expanding the scope of the request," Brady said. "We don't need OCTA to run this. I hope they make things less restrictive."

Buena Park City Councilman Art Brown, Bilodeau's board colleague and a fellow committee member, agrees with Brady. Brown said he is "not real comfortable" with OCTA telling Placentia how to manage OnTrac.

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