An artist's depiction of one of the high-speed trains expected eventually… (California High-Speed…)
The California bullet train agency on Thursday defended its bidding criteria for selecting the winner for its first construction contract, saying that the process held down prices and was handled properly.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority has come under fire from critics who assert changes to the bidding criteria could jeopardize the quality of the project. The authority tentatively chose a team led by Sylmar-based Tutor Perini to build a 29-mile segment of track through Fresno even though it had the lowest technical score. The team had the lowest-cost bid, at just under $1 billion.
Changes to the bid evaluation criteria were made public in August 2011 but were not approved by the agency's board.
Jeff Morales, the chief executive officer, said Thursday at the agency's monthly board meeting that the staff had no requirement to obtain board approval for the changes, which allowed bidders with lower technical scores to compete based on price. Morales said other state agencies typically allow executives to make such changes without board approval.
He also said that he consulted on the changes with board member Michael Rossi after Chairman Dan Richard recused himself because of a conflict of interest. Richard formerly worked for Parsons Corp., which is a member of the Tutor Perini-led team.
The technical evaluations of proposals submitted by five construction firms were conducted in a two-step process, and the bid prices were locked in a safe, Morales said. The staff plans to issue a notice of its intention to award a contract in the next few weeks. The board will consider the contract recommendation in May.
Morales and Richard criticized news media coverage of the changes to the bidding criteria. Richard said the stories implied some intent to "jigger the rules."
Separately, Kevin Dayton, a member of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, a critic of organized labor, alleged in public comments that the authority was not being open about plans to enter into agreements that would ensure that unionized labor would get most jobs on the bullet train project.
Dayton claimed public documents appear to show Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin was negotiating on behalf of the agency with the Transportation Department on a union-only jobs agreement. A spokesman for Swearengin disputed that allegation, saying the major was only concerned about making sure economically disadvantaged residents of the Central Valley could get some of the jobs.