Sunday, December 4, 2011

High-Speed Rail: It Pays To Advertise

How much more evidence do we need to understand that this high-speed rail project in California is a scam?  There's nothing that brings out greed more than very large amounts of government funding.  Say, $3.3 billion worth.  That's what's on display in the article, below.

There's more to this story, however. Why must a government project, that meets serious and fundamental needs of the people, also need to be sold to the people with expensive advertising and promoting?  They use many BS phrases in the HSR rhetoric, like "stakeholders," and "outreach," to make it sound like what the rail authority is spending millions on is merely required public notification and information.  That's ridiculous.

They are selling this rail project exactly like the late-night TV Infomercials that sell fake "natural" drugs to meet our "intimate" interests. It's intended to meet needs that we didn't even know we had. Prior to this rail project being forced on the public, the only people who knew about it and gave a damn were the passenger railroad geeks and bloggers who take such pride in their trivia knowledge about the rail industry.

It is now obvious that the public had to be sold on this project, or they would have rejected it outright at the polls. Which is to say that 'education' was a tightly bundled pack of lies.  Those lies have been unravelling ever since.  In other words, the voters got scammed in 2008. And that's why there's so much talk about a referendum and a re-vote of the Proposition that the voters passed by a narrow margin.

So, the rail authority has been budgeting more for the selling of this project than can possibly be justified.  Our government has no business selling the people anything.  How would you like a useless but expensive project pushed at you, while the seller withdraws all the money from your checking account?  How is this rail project any different? The promotional packaging is even more lavish.  Why must they build the most expensive way to travel by rail? The answer is because it costs more than other kinds of rail projects.  The purpose of this project, I suggest, is earmarked government pork extraction. 

Don't get me started on Quentin Kopp or the rest of them.  This CHSRA Board, which has seen some turn-over in the past year, has nothing to commend it and a lot to be accountable for, if only there were a thorough investigation of their files and books.  As it stands, this extension of the Governors' office reports only to the governor as well as the Senate Committee on High-Speed Rail, and all that has happened so far is scolding and an occasional wrist slap.  

The state had an Inspector General's office, but Governor Brown shut that down immediately upon taking office.  And, that move should have raised a stink among all Californians of both Parties.  It didn't even raise an eyebrow.

And, about that HSR advertising.  Even the authorizing language of  Proposition 1A, which kicked off this project with the $9.95 billion bond issue, was worded by the Senate as promotional marketing.  An Appellate Court ruled that this was not allowed.  However the court did not rule the ballot proposition illegal, even though it was the test example for their ruling.  As I just said, the advertising was and continues to be, at the heart of this project.

When I say stuff like this, I receive a lot of questioning, skeptical looks.  I'll say it anyway; this project was intended to be a money generator for the politicians who have been promoting and governing it.  Their relentless mis-management has been no obstacle to the project's advancement. Why the federal government failed to do a cost-benefit analysis, and worse, failed to really dig into this California project (despite the snookering of the voters) continues to amaze me.  

The project is a trough for federal (and state) pork and a lot of people have been allowed to stick their noses into this trough. It's been nearly completely un-regulated.  We're patiently waiting for the next auditor report.

This flushing of taxpayers' dollars down the toilet has to stop.

California high-speed rail authority spends millions to polish image

By David Siders
By David Siders The Sacramento Bee
Last modified: 2011-12-04T07:37:37Z
Published: Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Copyright 2011 The Sacramento Bee.

On his way off the California High-Speed Rail Authority board this year, former state Sen. Quentin Kopp ripped into the authority's controversial $9 million public relations contract with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, urging its cancellation.

Everywhere, it seemed  from community meetings in the Central Valley to legislative hearings at the Capitol  the project was clobbered for its management and cost, and its worsening image, Kopp said in a March letter to Roelof van Ark, the rail authority's chief executive officer, was evidence of Ogilvy's "inadequate performance."

But the rail authority's public relations campaign has in recent years included not only its contract with Ogilvy  which is now being unwound  but also millions of dollars more in lucrative, publicly funded outreach contracts embedded in agency engineering contracts.

One of those agreements was with a company owned by a former aide to Kopp, and Kopp himself sought to bill the authority more than $1,100 for one outreach-related breakfast in San Francisco last year. Another contract went to a former assemblyman.

Last fiscal year alone, the authority spent $7.2 million on regional outreach, ranging from organizing public meetings to distributing newsletters and meeting with local officials, according to agency records obtained by The Bee.

The authority said it budgeted about $2.6 million for regional outreach this year, with 20 subcontractors statewide.

The magnitude of the effort and its many layers come to light at a critical point for the project. Officials plan to start construction in the Central Valley next year, but they must win the approval of a skeptical Legislature first. The regional subcontractors, overseen by engineering firms throughout the state, in some cases retained and billed the agency on behalf of subcontractors of their own.

"I guess the interesting question to me is, 'Why do they have to spend so much effort selling this to people if it has such strong support?' " said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, a critic of the rail effort. "They've got to put up a wall of, you know, peaches and cream, to make it look palatable to the voters."

Public outreach is required by state environmental rules for public review, and it is necessary to communicate the significance of the project, agency officials said.

"I think we're making a pretty decent effort to do the best public outreach that we can," said Lance Simmens, the authority's deputy director for communications and public policy.

In the Merced-to-Fresno corridor, that outreach has included "efforts geared toward the agricultural community," periodic public information meetings, monitoring local media and updating the project mailing list and "email blast program," according to invoices.

In the Palmdale-to-Los Angeles area, it included meetings with elected officials and "key stakeholders." And in the Fresno-to-Bakersfield area, the rail authority relied on the work of former Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines, whose invoices listed his company's professional services contract at $80,000.

Last fiscal year, regional outreach expenses accounted for about 4 percent of total spending under agency engineering contracts, according to the authority. This year, the budgeted amount accounts for about 2 percent of total expenses.

In the Bay Area, an early battleground for the project because of intense local opposition, Denise LaPointe, an aide to Kopp when he was a senator, billed the authority more than $350,000 for outreach work done from September 2009 to June 2011, when her contract ended.

LaPointe created newsletters, worked on a public participation plan and conducted outreach and "stakeholder meetings & briefings." Her total billings included invoices for work done by a sub-subcontractor.

"There's a lot of work that was done," LaPointe said. "Any big project, I actually think there's pretty important public outreach that has to be done."

LaPointe was working for the rail authority and had done work on other transportation projects in California before Kopp joined the board, LaPointe and Kopp said. Kopp said he was not involved in LaPointe's ongoing engagement.

Kopp said LaPointe was influential in promoting the project in the Bay Area, in part because she "knows City Hall in San Francisco inside and out."

Kopp, a longtime proponent of high-speed rail, involved himself in outreach, too, according to invoices, including organizing a breakfast meeting last year in San Francisco to introduce van Ark to 25 elected officials in the area.

"I wanted everybody to meet van Ark, and I wanted him to just get the lay of the land and get the feel." Kopp said.

He sought reimbursement from the rail authority for the cost, more than $1,100. The authority reimbursed him the state maximum for a breakfast, $6.

"I remember asking somebody in the office if I could get reimbursed, and being told, 'No,' " Kopp said, "That, frankly, annoyed me a little. But what the heck, it's called public service."

The authority was more accommodating of paying for Kopp's transportation to and from his home in San Francisco for meetings at the Capitol on two successive days in November 2009. Neumann Limousine, which dispatched a sedan, charged the authority $240 each way.

The rail authority's bid to build a system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco has enjoyed a resurgence this fall, after Gov. Jerry Brown put his support behind it. Even as officials revised the project's cost estimate to almost $100 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars over 20 years  more than twice the previous estimate  the projection was seen by many observers as a sign of greater credibility within the rail authority.

But LaMalfa and other critics want the Legislature to ask Californians to reconsider the $9 billion bond measure that voters approved in 2008 to finance the project's construction, and its future remains uncertain.

In the agency's outreach effort, Ogilvy announced this summer that it was quitting its contract, saying it was "unable to develop a solid working relationship" with the authority. The authority since then has been seeking a replacement. Simmens said he expects that contract to be awarded soon.

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