SACRAMENTO — 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.