In the span of a single day, a pair of top officials overseeing the construction of California's high speed rail system announced their intention to leave their posts in what appears to be a deliberate effort to reverse the course of the troubled project.
Roelof van Ark will step down as CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, the over-arching body tasked with the creation of the country's first bullet train system, just as Thomas Umberg will similarly leave his position as chairman of the authority's board of directors.
Umberg will remain a member of the organization's board.
Former BART president Dan Richard was pegged by Governor Jerry Brown to fill the spot vacated by Umberg. The board is planning to convene an executive search committee to find a new CEO in the coming weeks.
The departures are "clearly a sign from people who are trying to make this happen that" van Ark and Umberg "were not on a path to making this happen," Mortimer Downey, a senior adviser with New York-based infrastructure consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, said in a phone interview.
The emergence of Richard, who is close to Brown, "is a sign that the governor is not walking away from the project and that it's going to move ahead to some sort of pragmatic solution," Downey said. "Dan's political skills and project-development skills are very good."
"A lot of people want to turn off the lights. I'm not one of them," Brown said to the Sacramento Bee on Friday morning. "We're going to build, we're going to invest, and California is going to stay up among the great states and the great political jurisdictions of the world."
These high-profile departures come only a week after an independent panel tasked with evaluating the project issued a scathing report recommending the state stop approving additional bonds for the train system, which has seen its projected cost almost triple in the years since California voters approved a nearly $10 billion bond going toward its construction in 2008.
"We cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the [high-speed rail] without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the state, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the state of California," panel chairman and former Caltrans director Will Kempton wrote in the report.
In the wake of the report, Republicans in the state legislature--the majority of whom opposed high speed rail from the start--introduced a bill that would prevent the state from making any further bond sales in support of the project.
Van Ark, who has an extensive background overseeing high speed rail projects around the word, took the helm of the authority in 2010 and, since then, has expended much of his energies attempting to negotiate the political morass in Sacramento.
Rather than focusing on engineering, Van Ark began spending more time on the acrimonious politics engulfing the project. Van Ark was called before the Legislature 15 times last year.
"I think he took over a totally dysfunctional organization," said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), one of those who summoned Van Ark. "The distrust by the Legislature was already there. He was always in a defensive posture, defending against this attack or that attack. I think it just wore him out. His skills did not match the situation that evolved."
Brown has allegedly been dissatisfied with the progress on high speed rail thus far and, earlier this month, proposed a total restructuring of the California High Speed Rail Authority. The governor's plan called for giving the body less autonomy by folding it into a new Transportation Agency that would also encompass the state's Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles.
Assuming all goes according to plan, the $98.5 billion high speed rail project is scheduled to begin construction later this year and commence operation sometime in 2033.