As the state's $42-billion high-speed rail system draws closer to breaking ground, a key state lawmaker is calling for leadership changes that he says would prevent conflicts of interest but could expel two influential Southern California officials from the project's board.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal, (D- Long Beach), who chairs the Senate transportation committee, is drafting legislation that would ban individuals who hold elected office or sit on local transportation boards from also serving as a director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
The proposal is aimed most immediately at two prominent Los Angeles and Orange County board members — Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Richard Katz, board member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Both disagree with Lowenthal's approach, saying that their service with multiple transportation agencies has improved cooperation and coordination between the high-speed rail project and local governments.
"I appreciate the senator's concerns; he has raised lots of legitimate questions," Katz said. "But he is taking a pretty big shotgun to something that is minor and can be easily resolved other ways."
Their position is backed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who says policy makers serving with several transportation agencies can better understand high-speed rail as it relates to commuter rail, public transit and communities.
As the complex plan to link San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego with 200-mile-an-hour trains advances, Lowenthal said in an interview this week that the project must be shielded from the parochial agendas of local officials who sit on the board.
"These members really represent local interests. And they're there to protect local interests rather than represent statewide interests," Lowenthal said.
The better model, he contends, is the California Transportation Commission, which distributes state money to freeway, highway and transit projects. The panel does not include office holders or board members of local transportation agencies that will have business before the commission.
Under state law, office holders who sit on various commissions or boards can violate the doctrine of "incompatible offices" if they make decisions that clash with the interests of the agencies they serve.
Triggering Lowenthal's concern in part is a proposed deal — backed by Pringle — to use $200 million in high-speed rail money to complete a huge, canopied transportation center next to Angels Stadium of Anaheim at the southern terminus of the bullet train's first phase.
Pringle, a former GOP assembly speaker, is chairman of the high-speed rail authority and director of the Orange County Transportation Authority board. Both the OCTA and Anaheim have been trying for decades to build the soaring, intermodal transportation hub.
But the deal was not envisioned under the voter-approved high-speed rail funding plan, Lowenthal said. And it would set a bad precedent of earmarking critically needed funds for local priorities before planning is even finalized for the high-speed rail project, he added.
His concerns also extend to Katz, who serves on both the MTA and Metrolink commuter rail boards as a Villaraigosa appointee. Both agencies are heavily involved in the bullet train project because they would share Union Station and various right-of-ways with high-speed trains.
Among other things, Katz has pushed for a potential track-sharing design suggested by the MTA — the lead funding agency of Metrolink — for the high-speed rail segment between Los Angeles and Anaheim . Track sharing could cut bullet train construction costs and help upgrade Metrolink track systems.
"There is a great benefit from the coordination from my roles at the MTA, Metrolink and high-speed rail authority," Katz said.
Katz and Pringle noted that local office holders often serve simultaneously on boards and commissions throughout the state without any problem. One such office holder is Fran Florez, who served on the high-speed rail board while sitting for years on the Shafter City Council.
Pringle said he did not understand why Lowenthal was concerned about the proposal to secure $200 million in rail bond funds to the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, or ARTIC, which needs to be redesigned to handle bullet trains. The agreement would have involved the high-speed rail authority, the Anaheim City Council and OCTA.
After the proposal came to Lowenthal's attention, the senator questioned Katz at a transportation committee meeting in May. He was concerned that local interests were unfairly getting a priority and that the ARTIC deal would skirt the appropriations and peer review process required of high-speed rail projects.
Even before the hearing, Katz said the proposal was being analyzed by the state attorney general's office and high-speed rail officials. Any allocation to ARTIC, he said, would be subject to the peer review process and approval by the Legislature.
Following the committee meeting, Katz withdrew the proposal from further consideration by the high-speed rail authority board, saying it "needed work."
Lowenthal's concern about the agreement was valid, Katz said. "But the reason for his actions might be more justified had the high-speed rail authority ignored the warning signs."