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Bullet train board picks former Caltrans director as new CEO

May 29, 2012 |  1:42 pm

An illustration of a high-speed rail station. Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has named Jeff Morales, an executive for a contractor working on the bullet train project, as its new chief executive, filling a position that has been vacant since early January.

Morales, a former Caltrans director, has been working on the project as an executive of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project manager for the rail authority.

The authority has come under increasingly tough criticism by the Legislature for its thin management. It has been operating without a chief executive, a chief operating office, a chief financial officer and a risk manager as it is seeking funds to start a $6-billion segment of the rail system later this year.

Rail authority Chairman Dan Richard has sought to reassure skeptical state senators that the authority was moving as quickly as possible to fill those vacancies and prepare itself for the aggressive construction project. That plan has been falling behind schedule over the last year.

Morales was appointed Caltrans director by former Gov. Gray Davis. Morales left Caltrans 3½ years later when Davis was voted out of office. He will fill the job that was last occupied by Roelof van Ark, who had shunned the political aspects of his job and attempted to focus on the engineering challenges.

But that approach led to a wholesale loss of confidence in the Legislature, and ultimately Gov. Jerry Brown asserted greater control of the project, jettisoning Van Ark last January.

The hiring of Morales appears to further strengthen the ties between the rail authority and its top contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The contractor, which was a major contributor to the 2008 campaign to approve a $9-billion bond for the project, has several hundred employees assigned to the project, compared with fewer than 50 for the authority.

Outside critics say that while Morales may be a good choice, they are increasingly concerned about the tight relationship the authority has created with Parsons Brinckerhoff and the larger revolving door between the authority and its contractors.

“Those lines are becoming more blurred every day,” said Elizabeth Alexis, a cofounder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

Morales was selected by the rail authority board at a meeting Tuesday.

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— Ralph Vartabedian

Photo: An illustration of a high-speed rail station. Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority

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