Bullet train agency names new chief executive

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

Morales, a former Caltrans director, had 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, operating without a chief executive, a chief operating officer, a chief financial officer or a risk manager as it seeks 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, a 1983 biology graduate of George Washington University, was appointed Caltrans director by then-Gov. Gray Davis. Morales left Caltrans 31/2 years later when Davis was voted out of office. Morales has also served as executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority, the Obama transition team and former Vice President Al Gore’s attempts to improve federal efficiency.

“This board was deeply impressed by his extensive experience in large and complex transportation issues and projects on the local, state, federal and international levels,” Richard said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called Morales a “vital asset” to the project. Jim Earp, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, a union and building industry group, added that Morales’ appointment shows the rail authority is taking outside criticism seriously.

Morales will fill the job that was last occupied by Roelof van Ark, who had shunned the political aspects of his post 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 over the project, jettisoning Van Ark in 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 bullet train, has hundreds of employees assigned to the project, compared with fewer than 50 for the authority.

Outside activists say that although 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 co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

Political critics of the project see deeper problems.

“The rail authority claims it conducted a nationwide search just to end up with an executive from its biggest contractor?” asked state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale). “How can we expect this insider to provide an independent review of the project, when he helped write the plan that’s already doubled the cost to taxpayers? It’s difficult to believe that Mr. Morales can be counted on to drive a hard bargain with the company that has been paying his salary.”

Senate transportation committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) said, “I am troubled by the relationship. It is hard to separate the conflicts.”