With the $100-billion project at a critical juncture, the governor puts his people in key positions.

By Ralph Vartabedian and Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
January 14, 2012

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.

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.

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.

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