SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown reappointed two leaders of California's embattled high-speed rail board on Wednesday, days before leaving office.
He gave Dan Richard and Tom Richards fresh four-year terms on the board of directors that oversees the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is tasked with building a high-speed train to shuttle passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. Richard and Richards were selected by their fellow board members as chairman and vice chairman, respectively.
Brown's action comes as the project is under renewed fire following a state audit that faulted it for poor contract management and beginning construction in the Central Valley before necessary approvals were in hand. That's on top of repeated delays and cost overruns; the project is now slated for completion in 2033 at a price tag of $77 billion.
But Brown, a Democrat, remains a staunch advocate for the project and blasted the state auditor in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
"This leadership is doing a good job. No one's ever built a high speed rail," he said. "I have no doubt the auditor couldn't have even begun to figure out what to do."
Brown's move guarantees his allies remain on the board after he leaves office. Richard is a longtime Brown friend; he worked in Brown's administration in the 1980s.
"I acknowledge there are challenges and more work to be done, I look forward to tackling those challenges as we work to deliver the nation's first high-speed rail," Richard said in a statement.
Richards did not immediately comment on his reappointment. Brown did not offer comment with his decision.
But Brown's successor, Gavin Newsom, will still have his own opportunity to shape the board. Two other board members appointed by the governor are currently serving expired terms. That means Newsom could reappoint them or choose his own people. He's a less enthusiastic backer of the project than Brown and has suggested focusing only on the northern leg of the project.
Right now, rail leaders are focused on building the line from the Central Valley to San Jose, and they lack enough money to even complete that leg. The next phase would run to Los Angeles.
The board has nine voting members, although one seat appointed by the Senate is currently vacant. The governor appoints five, the Senate two, and the Assembly two. Two lawmakers serve as ex-officio members who do not vote.
Under Newsom, the Democratic-led Legislature is eager for more oversight power. Democratic Assemblyman Jim Frazier of Discovery Bay, head of the transportation committee, has introduced a law requiring legislative approval of gubernatorial appointees. Lawmakers passed that measure in 2018. Brown vetoed it, saying the Legislature already has enough oversight between its own appointees, a peer review group and the state auditor.
Frazier also wants Richard to resign, saying that as the head of the project he has had repeated opportunities to correct management issues. "Richard owes it to California to step aside and let new leadership take over," he said in November.