SACRAMENTO -- Questions about real and perceived conflicts of interest among experts hired to review California megaprojects, such as the Bay Bridge, high-speed rail and Delta twin water diversion tunnels, are driving state legislators to look at writing stiff new rules for peer review panels.

Experts' potential financial or business ties to the state must be disclosed, their independence more thoroughly evaluated and their work more transparently reported to the public, said Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, at the conclusion of a three-hour oversight hearing Wednesday.

"California isn't the only public agency struggling with this issue, but we have to do better," DeSaulnier said. "The toll payers and the public need to have confidence that they are getting what they were promised."

DeSaulnier scheduled the hearing in response to media reports questioning the independence of peer review experts hired for these large projects.

None of the half-dozen people who testified during the hearing dispute the value of second, third and even fourth opinions. It is common practice in the scientific community and most state agencies to bring in outside expertise from private industry and academia.

The disagreement came over what constitutes "independent" peer review and whether these often highly technical deliberations should be done in public meetings.

True peer reviewers are unpaid and free of financial or other relationships with the project's lead agency that inevitably affect their independence, said Elizabeth Alexis, founder and director of California Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a citizens' high-speed rail watchdog organization. Her group has been voicing concerns about the rail authority's ridership model peer review team.

"Once reviewers are paid, they are part of the team," Alexis said. "They are paid consultants. They are valuable. But it is not true peer review."

While some of the more technical discussions among reviewers may be done in closed sessions, Alexis said, agencies must provide the public access throughout the process.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty agreed his agency should, has and will make its peer review process more transparent.

The state uses outside experts on numerous projects and has used a peer review panel on the new $6.4 billion eastern span of the Bay Bridge project for years, beginning with seismic experts hired after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and continuing through design and even construction. The bridge is scheduled to open Labor Day 2013.

Earlier this year, Caltrans asked its seismic safety review panelists to file the same financial disclosure reports required of all elected officials and most public employees. Those reports will be made public after the state Fair Political Practices Commission finalizes a new form its staff is developing for peer review members.

Caltrans pays peer review members an hourly rate, but it bans individuals involved in the same project's technical design contract, Dougherty said.

But the unique nature of most megaprojects presents a major challenge when it comes to evaluating the influences from other types of professional ties: Only a relative handful of engineers or architects, for example, qualify as world-class experts in building suspension bridges in high-risk earthquake zones.

The bridge seismic review panel members have included Frieder Seible, a structural engineer and dean of UC San Diego's engineering school; UC Davis geotechnical engineer and Professor Emeritus I.M. Idriss; UC Berkeley engineering Professor Emeritus Joseph Nicoletti; and Lehigh University Professor Emeritus John Fisher.

Nicoletti was on the engineering and architectural panel that helped the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission select the span type, though he favored a cable-stayed bridge over the winning self-anchored span. And Caltrans has paid UC San Diego's engineering school millions of dollars for broader seismic research.

Caltrans has replaced several prior panelists who subsequently took on direct work with Bay Bridge contractors, chief toll bridge engineer Brian Maroney told the Senate committee.

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, politicswithlisav.blogspot.com or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.