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California bullet train CEO, chairman stepping down

January 12, 2012 |  2:57 pm

California high-speed train

The chief executive of the state’s high-speed rail agency resigned Thursday amid growing criticism of the $98.5-billion bullet train project and declining public support for the proposal.

Roelof van Ark, 59, announced his departure in a major shakeup that included the replacement of attorney Thomas Umberg, a former state legislator, as chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors.

Umberg will recommend that Dan Richard, who was recently appointed to the board by Gov. Jerry Brown, assume his leadership role. Van Ark said he will  leave in two months, while Umberg will step down in February.

The departure of the chief executive comes a week after an independent review panel issued a scathing critique of the project and refused to recommend that the state issue billions in  bonds to help fund the first leg of the 520-mile project in the Central Valley.

The panel raised serious doubts about almost every aspect of the project and concluded that the current plan “is not financially feasible” at this time.  The original cost of the project also has tripled from $33 billion to $98.5 billion and two recent public opinion polls indicate that voters would turn down the project they approved in November 2008.

Van Ark’s resignation represents a serious blow to the management of the authority as it hustles to start construction of the project’s first 130 miles in the Central Valley, a segment that has  run into increasing opposition from major agricultural interests and some cities along the route.

Van Ark, a senior business manager with extensive experience in high-speed rail systems, replaced Mehdi Morshed in June 2010 as head of the authority. He had been  president of the North American division of  Alstrom SA,  a French conglomerate that makes high-speed trains and built the the  TGV bullet train system in France.

Van Ark also headed other major divisions of Alstrom as well as units of Siemens AG, a German firm that also develops high speed rail systems.

The rail company executive took over the rail authority at a critical juncture. After years of quiet planning, the authority began moving rapidly to develop the 520-mile link between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but faced a multitude of challenges and a growing array of skeptics.


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-- Dan Weikel and Ralph Vartabedian

Image: Rendering of proposed California high speed rail station Credit: California High Speed Rail Authority