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New California high-speed rail chief likely to be named Thursday

May 5, 2010 |  9:50 pm

A top executive at a firm that operates the nation’s largest train manufacturing plant and has expressed interest in involvement with the state's proposed $43-billion high-speed rail line is expected to be named to head the agency overseeing the project, The Times has learned.

Roelof van Ark, president of Alstom Transportation Inc., a subsidiary of a French-based conglomerate, is scheduled to be introduced at a California High-Speed Rail Authority meeting Thursday.

An authority source, who spoke on condition that he not be named because the announcement was not yet official, confirmed that Van Ark is the board’s tentative choice. If formally approved by the board as anticipated, Van Ark would succeed Mehdi Morshed, the longtime agency chief executive who recently stepped down.

Van Ark, who has headed major, global divisions of both Alstom and Germany-based Siemens AG, appears to have the project management experience that agency board members want at a crucial time of transition.

After years of quiet planning, the authority is trying to rapidly embark on one of the most ambitious public works projects in state history. But it is also confronting a multitude of challenges and a growing array of skeptics, including influential state lawmakers. The latest blow came in a highly critical audit released last week by state Auditor Elaine Howle.

Even as routing and financing controversies continue to boil, the agency is committed to starting construction on the Bay Area-to-Anaheim line in two years so it can collect $2.25 billion in Obama administration stimulus money.

Van Ark, who currently heads a New York-based branch of Alstom with $1 billion in revenue, is expected to be paid $250,000 to $375,000 annually, based on recent board actions. He could receive an additional hiring incentive and relocation payment of up to $150,000. The salaries of chief executives at Los Angeles and San Francisco regional transportation agencies fall in that range, according to the authority.

Authority board members are likely to highlight Van Ark’s leadership of large, complex transportation projects, including high-speed rail lines in Germany and subways in China. 

But that same background could invite questions about possible converging public and private interests. In recent years, Van Ark has signaled that his firm may want to invest in or bid on California’s high-speed rail project. The most recent such indication came just two months ago in an interview reported by business website Bloomberg.com.

-- Rich Connell