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High-Speed Rail faces changes at the top

POSTED January 17, 2012 9:22 p.m.

A major leadership shakeup faces the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Last week, just days after strong calls to the State Legislature to abandon funding the $98 billion plan for a statewide 220-mile-per-hour train system, both the authority's chief executive officer and chairman of the board announced they would step down.

Roelof van Ark, who has served as CHSRA CEO since May 2010, will resign effective March. He will remain available to the authority through the end of the year, offering advice to maintain a continuity of management and leadership.

“The announcement of his resignation will resonate throughout the state,” said outgoing CHSRA Board Chairman Thomas Umberg. “His energy, passion and dedication to this critically important project are a testament to his character and his professionalism.”

Van Ark's resignation was voluntary, according to the CHSRA. The outgoing CEO, who came from an engineering background, had intended to stay with the project only through the completion of an updated business plan, released in November.

That business plan, termed a “realistic” look at the challenges of constructing an 800-mile high-speed train network from San Francisco to Los Angeles, saw cost estimates triple to $98 billion from initial figures presented to voters in 2008.

Umberg will step down as chair in February, but will remain with the board. Umberg cited an inability to commit the needed time to the post as a reason for his move; Umburg operates a Southern California law practice and is also an Army Reservist.

Umberg will be succeeded by board member Dan Richard, one of two Gov. Jerry Brown appointments to the board. Brown last Friday reiterated his commitment to the project, but said his appointees will work to revamp the business plan yet again.

Also leaving is CHSRA Press Secretary Rachel Wall. Wall announced her departure Jan. 10; she will assume a new position with Wal-Mart. Board member Matthew Toledo will also leave the board; he resigned on Jan. 4.

The exodus is just a reaction to the project's waning support, according to State Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), a critic of the plan. In the past week, a Field Poll found that two-thirds of Californians believe the project should be reconsidered, while an independent review group issued a report urging the legislature to delay releasing funds needed to begin construction on a 120-mile Central Valley test segment due to a lack of identified funding.

“The more Californians learn about this project, the more angry they become at the $100-billion bait-and-switch the Authority pulled on voters,” LaMalfa said. “The resignations of van Ark and Umberg signal that even the Authority no longer believes its own spin on the project. I hope that Governor Brown will reconsider his plan to borrow billions for a project that Californians don’t want, don’t need and can’t afford.”

Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani (D – Livingston), an author of the $9.95 billion Prop 1A rail bond approved by voters in 2008, disagreed, arguing that most planning work is completed – and shows the project to be feasible. Galgiani said the departure of van Ark marks an opportunity for Brown to take control of the politically charged high-speed rail development.

“Today represents a turning point for the Governor to put his stamp on the project,” Galgiani said. “I am pleased that his long-trusted Advisor, Dan Richard, has been chosen to succeed Chair Umberg, and I am confident that Governor Brown will put his full resources behind the success of High Speed Rail.”

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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