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Bullet train agency changed bid criteria
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California's high-speed rail authority changed its rules for selecting a company to build the first phase of the bullet train in a way that allowed a California bidder to emerge as the lead candidate despite having the lowest technical rating for safety and design quality, a newspaper reported Friday.

The process was changed without approval from the board that oversees the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The change meant that a California consortium with the lowest bid emerged as the front-runner.

It was one of many "improvements and refinements" made to the request for proposal to get a "better quality product at a lower cost," said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the rail authority. He said the board delegated Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales to make any necessary changes.

"There was a real concern that by not opening all the bids, it could have left hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the table," he said.

Wilcox said the change has been publicly posted on the authority's website since last August.

Officials announced last week that a $985.1 million bid from a consortium led by Sylmar-based Tutor Perini was the top candidate out of five submitted to build the first 30-mile segment from Madera to Fresno. The bid was below the authority's estimated cost of $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion.

It still requires approval from the high-speed rail board, although the timeline for that action is uncertain.

Wilcox said the total costs for each bid were kept in sealed envelopes while the other criteria were weighed, including a three-step technical review to ensure the bids met all the qualifications. The technical criteria are based on safety measures, engineering, scheduling, design quality, project approach and solutions to possible construction problems.

Under the original criteria, bidders were to be narrowed to the final three based only on the technical evaluation. Then cost would be considered. That process would have eliminated the bid from Tutor Perini-Zachry-Parsons because it had the lowest technical score.

Under the new criteria, all the bids that met the technical criteria were considered, leaving the door open for Tutor Perini.

Any suggestion that the authority chose price over technical merit and safety is "absolutely false," Wilcox said.

"It's the best value bid, which is based both on technical merit and cost, and all five bids were technically sound," he said.

Jorge Casado, a spokesman for Tutor Perini, did not immediately return a telephone message from The Associated Press.

Officials hope to break ground this summer on what would be the nation's first high-speed rail system.

On Thursday, the rail authority reached a crucial legal settlement with Central Valley farmers who had sued to block the project on environmental grounds. Approval of the settlement by a Sacramento County Superior Court cleared the last legal hurdle for the $68 billion project to break ground.

The rail authority also received a possible setback when the federal Surface Transportation Board ruled that it has authority over the project. That could mean substantial delays and cost overruns if the state is forced to comply with federal railroad regulations. The state has applied for an exemption to that oversight, which could be decided next month.

Voters approved issuing $10 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, but public support has dwindled in recent years as the project's costs have soared. Planners are under tight deadlines so the state can claim billions of dollars in federal matching grants.