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Brown enlarges his role in California’s foundering bullet train project

A surprise shake-up of senior leaders at California’s bullet-train agency this week was partly Gov. Jerry Brown’s response to a growing crisis of confidence and credibility in recent months that has threatened the political viability of the project.

As criticism of the project has intensified, Brown has moved to exert more direct control, installing two representatives on the board of the California High Speed Rail Authority and, on Thursday, playing at least a peripheral role in replacing the authority’s chief executive, Roelof van Ark. Several state government sources said Van Ark, an engineering manager and high-speed rail expert, had become personally frustrated and lost the confidence of some key legislators.

Brown is under pressure from unions, engineering firms, big-city mayors and the Obama administration to stabilize and press ahead on a nearly $100-billion project that would be the biggest in California’s lofty history of extraordinary public works gambles. With so much at stake, Brown is putting his own people in charge, although their ability to quickly reverse the damage of a wave of negative outside reviews of the project remains unclear.

Van Ark is leaving in two months, giving the governor and the state’s High Speed Rail Authority board little time to find a qualified replacement at one of the most crucial junctures in the project’s history. In coming months, the rail agency must complete two crucial environmental reviews, obtain complex permits, persuade the Legislature to approve $2.7 billion in borrowing to start construction, begin buying land along the route and hire contractors to start work. All the while, the agency will have to fend off lawsuits and respond to increasingly skeptical groups of lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington.

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It would be a formidable agenda even with experienced, stable leadership. Some knowledgeable observers say other managers, concerned about Van Ark’s treatment, could head for the exits soon. As it is, the rail authority is getting along with 28 employees, about half its authorized positions.

Amid the turmoil at the top, the project’s planning is proceeding at the hands of about 500 employees of contractors, led by New York City-based engineering giant Parsons Brinkerhoff, a firm that helped bankroll the 2008 bond proposal passed by voters.

“One of the questions that needs to be answered is what is the goal here,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who has some oversight responsibilities for the project. “There needs to be someone who can exercise more rigor in the process. Instead, it seems like the agency has lurched from ad hoc decision to ad hoc decision in the past three years.”

The task of leading, at least for now, is falling to Dan Richard, a retired utility executive, former Bay Area transit official and longtime Brown political associate. Richard, whom the governor placed on the board last year, is expected to take over as chairman in February, replacing Thomas Umberg, an Orange County attorney who announced that he was giving up the leadership post the same day Van Ark disclosed his departure.

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Richard, who served as a young legal advisor in Brown’s first gubernatorial administration in the 1970s, had already become a de facto project spokesman.

An attorney by training, he began his career at NASA and in recent years co-founded an infrastructure finance firm. He has offered to make the rail project a full-time commitment, though he will earn no more than $500 a month under state law.

Richard has embraced the pro-bullet train rationale that the state needs the project to accommodate future growth and can’t expect to have all the money required to finish construction before work begins. Currently, the state has $3.3 billion in federal grants and $9 billion in potential state bond funds, leaving it $86 billion short.

Richard also defends the Obama administration’s decision to start construction in the Central Valley. He has warned critics in recent weeks that they will destroy the project if they try to defy the federal government requirements. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) issued a letter last week that again raised the issue of starting construction in the Central Valley, calling for greater investments in the urban ends of the system and for a major reorganization of the project under Caltrans.

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Thus far, Richard has gained credibility with legislators. But he lacks a technical background and experience developing a bullet train. That was Van Ark’s strong suit.

“Roelof could build this train in his sleep, but the political process is not his strength,” said Richard Katz, a former bullet train agency board member and influential Los Angeles transportation official. “Some will see it as an opportunity to dismantle the agency. They need some strong leadership, someone quick.”

The shake-up is a setback to the project, not a sign of health, said Quentin Kopp, another former high-speed rail authority board member and state legislator. Van Ark, he said, “was a strong engineer” and Umberg is “highly intelligent and devoted to the project.” The loss of Umberg, in particular, is “not a good step,” he said.

Beyond vague criticism of Van Ark’s political skills, it is not clear what led to his departure, and he has declined to comment.

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His resignation announcement came on the day that Parsons Brinkerhoff delivered a technical assessment that disputed one of Van Ark’s most significant initiatives: reconsidering the 2005 decision to route the bullet train through Palmdale and the Tehachapi Mountains, rather than up the Grapevine and Interstate 5. After hearing the presentation, the board voted to drop any further consideration of the Grapevine route, even though preliminary indications were that it could be cheaper, shorter and faster than the Palmdale route. A top Parsons Brinkerhoff executive was quoted by Bloomberg News later in the day criticizing Van Ark’s tenure.

Under Van Ark, the authority unveiled a business plan in early November that was considered one of the last chances for the authority to produce a credible blueprint for building and financing the massive $98.5-billion project.

But not long after the plan’s release, outside experts, transportation researchers, government officials and activists attacked the document, asserting that it was unrealistic and unaffordable. A number of state and local lawmakers began echoing the criticism, egged on by public opinion polls that showed a majority of the state’s voters no longer supports the project.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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dan.weikel@latimes.com


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