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New high-speed rail chief faces tall challenge

May 6, 2010 | 12:54 pm

A senior private-sector executive with extensive international rail construction experience was selected Thursday to lead California's $43-billion high-speed rail project from the drawing board toward the start of construction.

Roelof van Ark, 58, president of Alstom Transportation Inc., a subsidiary of a French-based conglomerate, was unanimously approved as new chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority at an agency board meeting in Sacramento.

Van Ark, an engineer and manager, succeeds Mehdi Morshed, who led the agency since its inception in 1996. Van Ark heads the North American division of Alstom SA, a maker of high-speed trains and builder of Europe 's TGV bullet train system. Alstom also operates the largest train manufacturing plant in the United States, and the firm has expressed its interest in contracting for part of the California project Van Ark will now direct.

"Roelof van Ark is the world-class manager and engineer we need to take the reins of this project and turn the promise of high-speed rail into reality for the people of California," said the authority's board chairman Curt Pringle, of Anaheim.

Van Ark has headed major, global divisions of Alstom and Germany-based Siemens AG, another high-speed rail developer. His salary was set at $375,000. That is considerably less than his current compensation  package, the authority said. It is tens of thousands of dollars more than the pay received by the heads of the Los Angeles and San Francisco regional transportation agencies.

Van Ark said California is leading the nation in high-speed rail development and "the place to be."

"I have seen how high-speed rail projects transform the places where they're built," he added in a statement Thursday.

After years of quiet planning on the voter-approved project, the authority is trying to rapidly embark on building the most ambitious public works project in recent 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 Alstom's New York-based North America subsidiary, will begin June 1, assuming Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger signs off on the appointment as expected. Van Ark maintains residences in New York and Northern California.

Authority board members noted Van Ark’ has overseen 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. Van Ark has indicated 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