An influential state Democrat on Friday introduced a bill that would fire the current members of the board governing California's high-speed rail project and replace them with experts who don't have a financial stake in the undertaking.
The legislation by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, marks the first time a Democrat -- generally the $43 billion project's biggest supporters -- has introduced a measure undermining the officials planing the San Francisco-to-Anaheim rail line.
Lowenthal, the former chairman of the Senate's transportation committee and incoming head of the new Senate high-speed rail oversight panel, has criticized the California High-Speed Rail Authority for its lack of financial planning and accountability.
The bill would force all nine members of the rail authority board to vacate their posts by the end of January 2012. The current list of board members includes a bevy of former and current politicians, such as Bay Area residents Quentin Kopp -- a former state legislator -- and David Crane, a financial adviser for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and now a UC regent.
The new board members would need to include a financial expert, an environmental specialist, a construction law attorney, an engineer with experience on major infrastructure projects, a businessperson, and representatives from local government and labor. They would be disqualified if in the past two years they have taken significant money from a firm working on the project.
"I think it's time to make sure we have people on the board who make overall decisions on what's best for the state and not just what's best for their local community," Lowenthal said in an interview Friday, noting the attorney general recently found two board members to be in violation of the state's conflict of interest rules.
If passed by the Legislature and signed by bullet-train supporter Gov. Jerry Brown, the bill would place the rail authority in the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. This would force the authority -- currently an independent agency -- to be directly accountable to Brown, Lowenthal said.
The transportation agency's secretary would help draft the authority's budget, and the Senate would be able to veto the board's pick for a CEO or any of the five board members appointed by the governor.
Although Lowenthal conceded the bill could require some changes, he predicted SB 517 will pass in some form because oversight of high-speed rail has become such a hot and bipartisan topic in the Legislature.
Rail authority Deputy Director Jeff Barker said Friday the agency had not yet reviewed the entire bill.
"The Legislature is a critical partner in helping to get this important project built the way Californians expect," Barker said in a statement. "So if there's a bill whose aim is to be constructive in helping make the vision of high-speed rail a reality, then we are eager to partner with and work together with its author."
The Senate expects to start vetting the bill in early April, a process that could last through the summer.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 650-348-4324.
Includes current and former politicians, lawyers, a retired judge, a developer, a businessperson, finance experts and an engineer.
proposed rail board
Would exclude current members and require: a financial expert, environmental specialist, attorney, engineer, businessperson and representatives of labor and local governments.