As California prepares to embark on its largest public works project in decades, a union that represents state engineers is questioning whether all the construction work will be thoroughly scrutinized.
Contractors submitted bids this week to design and build the first 30-mile stretch of track for the $68 billion high-speed rail system, which eventually is designed to link Northern and Southern California by trains traveling up to 220 mph. The contract they sign is expected to be for up to $1.8 billion to build the initial segment in the Central Valley.
The documents outlining the requirements for the bids say the independent contractor that would design and build the first phase of the project would hire the inspectors charged with testing the work on that segment, running from Madera to Fresno. The inspections would then be submitted to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Critics, including lawmakers and a state engineers union, say the arrangement could present a conflict of interest and that independent inspectors who are not aligned with the construction company are needed.
The inspection process outlined so far is not equivalent to having a state-employed engineer or an independently hired contractor on the ground looking at the work as it happens, said Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government, the union that represents 13,000 state engineers.
"We believe that when you have a major public infrastructure project of that nature, that you should have somebody looking out for the public to ensure it is being built safely," he said.
Officials with the California High-Speed Rail Authority say the inspection system will be rigorous and that the agency will have the authority to add more inspections at any time -- by independent operators or CalTrans staffers.
"The suggestion that we would in any way, shape or form compromise safety is both insulting and flat-out wrong," said the authority's chief executive, Jeff Morales.
He rejected the union's characterization of the inspection process, saying scrutiny of the high-speed rail project will be robust. He called the construction plan "standard operating practice around the country and the world" and said using contractors allows the rail authority to tap highly qualified international experts and is also the most efficient.
Morales said the first level of review involves inspectors who work for the contractor.
"The second layer is there is a whole separate inspector who is retained by the contractor but reporting to us, who then has a separate plan for going out and checking and inspecting on the ground what's being done," Morales said. "The third level is then that we, as the authority, will go out and do checks ... to ensure that in fact, everything is what it's supposed to be."
Morales said state law also allows the rail authority to contract with CalTrans, if it desires, to inspect the work on what will be one of the nation's largest public works projects when it gets under way.
He said the engineers union opposes the design-build contract, an increasingly common form of bidding in which state and local agencies contract with private companies to do the design and the construction, because it requires fewer government workers. Morales said similar inspection processes are common on other design-build projects in California.
Yet the unprecedented size and complexity of the plan to build America's first high-speed rail line makes it difficult to compare the proposal to other major infrastructure projects in California and around the country. The request-for-proposal sent to potential contractors is thousands of pages and has hundreds of additional pages of addendums.
The inspections to be done include verifying things such as whether the holes for pilings have been dug deep and wide enough, whether the steel used is in the proper location and is sufficiently strong, and whether the mix of cement and concrete is right and has the right consistency.
"The way the RFP is being set up, the construction contractor inspects and verifies his own work. The fact that another person looks over some documents doesn't change that," Blanning said. "The question is who actually inspects the work when the concrete's being poured?"
The rail authority has been criticized in the past for its lack of oversight and ceding too much authority to contractors.
State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in January 2012 that the authority's processes for monitoring the performance and accountability of its contractors were "inadequate," that they lacked oversight and that its contractors and subcontractors "outnumber its employees by about 25 to one."
She said in a report that the authority "has delegated significant control to its contractors and may not have the information necessary to make critical decisions about the program's future."
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, a critic of high-speed rail, said she is concerned about a lack of oversight at all levels of the project, including that the authority is not responsible to anyone other than the governor.
"The contractors are reporting to the contractors reporting to the contractors," said Harkey, R-Dana Point.
She said some agency other than the authority should be reviewing all its contracts in detail. Harkey's request for Howle to perform another audit of the project was rejected in a legislative committee last year, but she said she will re-submit it this year.
"It's state debt and public funds, and we really need some oversight," she said.
The bid requirements from the high-speed rail authority go into significant detail about the required skills of any inspectors who are hired, saying they must have at least 10 years of experience in their field of expertise "with a proven track record as supported by their resumes," including work on projects with federal oversight.
The proposal says the contractor will self-verify and validate "that the particular requirements for a specific intended use have been fulfilled" and comply with a self-written plan to provide those verifications.
The contractor also will have to hire an independent engineering consulting firm that is "not associated in any way" with the firm working on the design or construction. That firm will submit its reports directly to the high-speed rail authority, but the engineers union notes that the contract requirements also say that no one will be allowed to duplicate those engineers' work.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he intends to thoroughly vet whatever deal the authority signs with one of five consortiums that are bidding for construction of the first segment.
"We're going to be watching and engaging with them to ensure there is proper oversight," he said, adding that he plans to meet with the engineers union about its concerns.
"We've got to make sure it's done right," DeSaulnier said.
While lawmakers approved the first phase of the project, it's unclear what ability the Legislature has to make changes. The rail authority was established as an independent body and its senior staff members are appointed by the governor.
The engineers union said it is not opposed to all design-build projects, including those that rely on private contractors doing inspections, but believes the high-speed rail project goes beyond the process approved by the Legislature.