The chairman of California's high speed rail oversight board didn't mince words about recent accusations that the agency changed the rules for its initial construction project, just to get a desired winner.
"That is completely false, and completely bogus," said board chairman Dan Richard during a public meeting Thursday in Sacramento.
The proposal in question was an information-only item on the day's agenda, but recent media coverage helped it overshadow the other business at hand.
Rail officials still plan for the ambitious San Francisco to Los Angeles bullet train project to break ground this summer. That construction will begin deep in the heart of the Central Valley on a short, roughly 30 mile section of track between Merced and Fresno.
And it appears the initial section will be built for substantially less than officials had originally projected.
Five bids were made on the project, with the apparent winner being a proposal to build the initial operating segment for slightly more than $985 million -- even though original estimates ranged from $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion.
"We got 5 international bid teams to spend millions of dollars, probably more than $10 million each, putting their bids together," says CHSRA board chairman Richard. "We got tremendous level of competition and interest."
But there have been questions raised about both the bid process and one of the companies that comprise the consortium of firms joining together in the leading proposal.
On the process, high speed rail officials acknowledge that a change to the methodology was made last August -- a change "sneaked" in, as one Fresno newspaper headline described it.
The original process called for a winning bid to be heavily weighted in favor of a "technical" score assigned to the proposal, the opinion of engineering experts based on the expertise of the would-be builder(s).
But last summer, officials modified the process to simply focus on whether the rail project suitors met a "minimum" standard. The winning bid would then be the proposal that offered the highest combined score on technical and cost measurements.
When the bids were opened (PDF) on April 12, the apparent winner -- the California based consortium of Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons -- had a lower technical score than the other four proposals, but a better cost estimate... and thus, came out on top.
Critics of that process lashed out Thursday at the board over the bid process.
"You need to do it over," said Kathy Hamilton, of the Bay Area Community Coalition on High Speed Rail, opponents of the train project.
"Your responsibility is to the public, and the state, the people in California who pay taxes," she said.
Rail authority CEO Jeff Morales told the audience that the change made to the bidding process was disclosed to all five bidders with ample time for them to adjust their proposals. Morales said all of the bidding groups had to pass rigorous technical reviews before being allowed to submit proposals, and that criticism of awarding the construction project to a qualified group at an affordable price has left him "befuddled."
Officials also pointed out that the five bids now belong to the high speed rail agency, which can share technology ideas submitted by bids that didn't win to the one that did.
Critics have also raised questions about one of the firms in the consortium that appears to have won the job, Tutor Perini. The company, which was renamed during a 2008 merger between two established construction companies, has been criticized and even sued for its work on other large California infrastructure projects.
Rail officials were told by opponents who spoke Thursday that they believe the low price tag may grow with 'change orders' for more funding once construction begins. Board chairman Richard says the agency's use of a 'design/build' process ensures that the winning bidder will not tack on those kinds of unexpected costs.
Some websites have also suggested that the political activities of Tutor Perini's CEO, Ronald Tutor, were part of how the firm came up on top. Those political activities have largely favored Democrats.
The bullet train's top official rejects the allegation.
"There were no politics involved in this decision," said Richard in an interview after Thursday's hearing. "None."
The top bid for the initial construction segment could be formally approved by the agency's board at its meeting on June 6.