Two new headaches for beleaguered bullet train project

The California High-Speed Rail Authority – the agency in charge of building the state’s bullet train system – has already faced a tough year, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signaling in February that he’s not confident the full system can ever be built. But now the rail authority has two new public relations headaches on its hands.

In the Central Valley, farmers were already upset over state use of eminent domain to seize their property for construction of the project’s first segment – a 110-mile route from Bakersfield to Merced projected to cost $12.2 billion. But a recent report in the Los Angeles Times documented how slow the rail authority was in paying for seized land and in refunding farmers for the cost of the train project’s effects on their businesses.

The Times’ story focused on a kiwi farmer who lost 70 acres of land to the project more than a year ago and who since has gone unpaid for $250,000 incurred in “relocating wells, removing trees, building a road and other expenses.” It also noted farmers who had been owed $1.9 million and $630,000 for three years, and two others owed $500,000 and $150,000, though for shorter periods of time.

State officials questioned by the Times had no explanation for the delays beyond saying the project was complex in its legal and engineering challenges.

A follow-up story by Fox News emphasized why the delayed payments are particularly upsetting to many Central Valley residents. Not only is there a chance the initial segment between Bakersfield and Merced will never be completed because the state doesn’t have enough funds, there is a good chance that even if the segment is finished, some of the property that has been seized won’t be used for the project. That’s because even now – more than five years after the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown decided to start the bullet train’s construction in the Central Valley – authority officials still haven’t agreed on the exact details of the final route.

“The property owners are very frustrated that the High-Speed Rail Authority [doesn’t] seem to know what they actually need,” Sacramento attorney Mark Wasser said. “We have farmers who the authority has come back four times to change where they want to take.” Wasser has more than 70 clients affected by the rail authority’s Central Valley project.

Audit warnings validated by ethics probe

Meanwhile, state audits which have long warned that it is problematic for the rail authority to rely so heavily on outside consultants have been vindicated with what appears to be evidence of a conflict-of-interest scandal.

Recently, the authority’s deputy chief operating officer – Roy Hill – was suspended pending an investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Hill is a top executive with the WSP consulting firm employed by the authority. Evidence suggests that Hill approved a $51 million increase in a bullet-train contract held by the Spanish firm Dragados despite his apparent ownership of more than $100,000 in stock in Jacobs Engineering, a multibillion-dollar multinational corporation that is providing key services to Dragados on the California project.

The FPPC approved the request of Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, to investigate Hill, his actions and his personal economic interests.

“This is such a deep conflict that it calls into question whether the entire High-Speed Rail Authority and the contractors they have put together are involved in a massive corruption,” Patterson told Fresno TV station KMJ.

The rail authority says it will cooperate with the FPPC probe.

Hill has not yet commented publicly on the matter.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com