More Smoke Than Fire in HSR Bid Controversy
The anti-HSR folks are all riled up about the process used to evaluate the bids for the Central Valley segment. Ralph Vartabedian and Elizabeth Alexis have teamed up to generate this controversy, as seen in this LA Times article:
State high-speed rail officials acknowledged Thursday that they changed their rules for selecting a builder for the bullet train’s first phase in the Central Valley, a shift that subsequently made it possible for a consortium led by Sylmar-based Tutor Perini to be ranked as the top candidate despite receiving the lowest technical rating….
The agency changed the evaluation process in July, according to an agency spokesman. The official did not provide details of the internal process used to alter the criteria. But he said the state potentially would save hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of the decision to change the evaluation criteria.
But Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a group critical of the bullet train project, disagreed and argued that the change in evaluation criteria has invalidated the bidding process.
“This is not a non-substantive change,” she said. “I don’t see any indication that the board approved this.”
The implication being made in the article is that the bidding review process produced a flawed result, and the changes made might render the whole process invalid and require starting over.
But those are allegations without evidence. The fact is that we in the public do not have enough information about these bids to make any conclusions about whether the California High Speed Rail Authority’s rankings are the right ones.
The technical score issue is a good example. We know that the Tutor Perini bid received the lowest technical score and Ferrovial-Acciona had the highest. But we don’t know what those scores mean. How were they calculated? What were the factors that led to Ferrovial-Acciona getting a better score than Tutor Perini? Without that knowledge we can’t make any assessment of the quality of these bids.
Tutor Perini got a lower score, but that doesn’t mean their bid has serious technical flaws. It’s entirely possible that they got the equivalent of an A- whereas Ferrovial-Acciona got the equivalent of an A+. All anyone outside the CHSRA can do is speculate, and as we learned this week out east, speculation isn’t always useful or accurate.
As to the changing bid review criteria, there’s no secret there. The CHSRA has been under constant pressure for the last four years from the media and from many politicians to reduce its costs. There is no small irony in HSR critics suddenly arguing that the CHSRA should have taken a more expensive bid. Had they ranked Ferrovial-Acciona as the top scoring bid, we would have had an article from Ralph Vartabedian criticizing them for giving a low score to a bid that would save $500 million.
I don’t have a dog in this fight, at least not yet. None of us knows enough about any of these five bids to make an informed comment on which one was the best. We don’t know whether the Tutor Perini bid has serious technical flaws or whether it is just fine and the other bids are simply overengineered. Until we are able to see details we can’t make informed assessments.
I will say that I personally believe that we should be prioritizing technical quality over cost in assessing bids. But again, until we see details of the scoring process and the bids, we’re not in any position to do more than wildly speculate. It’s no surprise that HSR opponents have chosen to do exactly that.