Joe Simitian, the state Senator from Palo Alto who has consistently expressed support for "high-speed rail done right," warned this week he is running out of patience with the controversial project and may withdraw his support unless there are some high-speed changes.
The Tuesday hearing focused on a recent report by the State Auditor's Office that identified a myriad of flaws in the California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the 800-mile rail line's initial phase between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Simitian said the audit, like previous reports from state agencies and watchdog groups, underscored to him that the complaints from the Peninsula are substantive issues, not isolated concerns.
The audit concluded that the rail project has suffered from poor planning, inadequate risk assessment and a flawed business plan -- mistakes that could result in major delays, cost overruns or even an incomplete system.
"At some point, folks need to come to grips with the fact that this isn't just the case of isolated concerns or misguided complaints or rampant NIMBY-ism," Simitian said.
"They are real and legitimate concerns and they need to be addressed sooner rather than later."
"We are getting very close to a point where if there's no significant changes and improvements in the way business is done, I will no longer be able to call myself a supporter of 'high-speed-rail done right,'" Simitian added.
"Once members start to back away in such a way, I think it puts the project in great jeopardy."
The Senate committee, which also includes senators Alan Lowenthal and Bob Huff, gave the authority 60 days to bring back more details about the rail authority's financial contracts. The three senators were troubled by the auditor's findings that the authority frequently approved payments to contractors without verifying that the work was completed.
The authority's program manager, Parsons Brinckerhoff, is charged with providing monthly reports to the agency's board of directors. The auditor's office found that many of these reports contained erroneous information.
"We saw that those monthly progress reports were inaccurate and that inconsistent information was being sent to the authority," State Auditor Elaine Howle told the committee.
Howle said her office reviewed 22 invoices and found that 20 had problems of some sort. She said her office was very concerned by the authority's process for keeping track of invoices.
"When you sample 22 invoices and you have concerns about 20, that's huge," Howle told the committee. "Usually, you'd expect an error rate that's very small."
All three senators voiced disappointment about the facts uncovered by the state auditor. Huff, the lone Republican in the trio, said if the rail authority doesn't provide good answers in 60 days the agency would see his tone change as he becomes more adversarial to the project.
Lowenthal said he will continue to push the authority for more information before releasing funds for the voter-approved project.
"Anybody who has read this audit report cannot help but be disheartened by the authority's mismanagement, or at least some folks' mismanagement, of scarce public resources," Lowenthal said.
"The litany of poor management practices identified by the audit is actually astounding."
Simitian asked authority officials how much time they need to resolve a list of ongoing issues, including flaws in its business plan, inadequate community engagement and questions over the legality of its plan to guarantee revenues to investors in the rail system.
Carrie Pourvahidi, the interim executive director of the authority, said she will submit a report within two weeks setting out a feasible timeline.
"It feels like we have to drag this information and improvements out of the authority in painful increments, one after another after another," Simitian said.
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