For California High Speed Rail, A Season of Woe

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This train is not high speed. (Photo by Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker)

It's been a difficult season for California High Speed Rail. A budget revision that put the total price tab ominously close to $100 billion. Two congressional hearings pillorying the project.   Lots of noise by legislators positioning themselves against the project.

Now comes word the man in charge of California's high-speed rail project has resigned, dealing yet another set back to the nation's most ambitious rail project. Roelof van Ark took the CEO position at the California High-Speed Rail Authority in May 2010 after heading up the American division of a French manufacturer of high-speed trains. His resignation takes effect in two months, giving him a total of less than a year in the post. He said he resigned for personal reasons.

Van Ark was in charge of the agency when it revised the business plan, raising the cost estimate to just under $99.5 billion over 20 years, a move that detracted from popular support, though supporters said it gave a much more "realistic" assessment of the projects costs, which they argued was ultimately fairer to the state.

Van Ark wasn't the only leader to step down. Tom Unger will give up his seat as chairman of the Authority's board, though he will continue to serve on it. Last week the press spokesperson for the Authority quit as well.

The resignations follow what the Los Angeles Times called "a serious blow" earlier in the month when funding of the plan was put in jeopardy. A government-created review board voted to recommend the legislature not issue $2.7 billion in bonds to pay for early work on the rail plan. A study commissioned by the Authority found that ridership projections were inaccurate and overly optimistic.

Governor Jerry Brown remains supportive of the plan and said he will seek legislative approval for new state funding anyway. In fact, in some ways, he's doubling down, according to the AP. One of his two hand picked advisers on the Rail Authority board, Dan Richards, will replace Mr. Unger as chairman. Brown has a plan to shift high-speed rail planning and management to a new agency that includes CalTrans, the state department of transportation.

Calif. Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani issued a statement saying, “Today represents a turning point for the Governor to put his stamp on the project."

Standing in the way of that is finding a new bullet train boss. As the Sacramento Bee predicts, the turmoil around the plan, its string of setbacks, and declining public support will make it harder for the new agency to find a leader with credentials to match van Arks.

Voters authorized the plan, and backed it with the go ahead to issue $9 billion in bonds to get the project started. That was back in 2008 before high-speed rail became politically controversial and fears of cost overruns led two Republican govenors to cancel plans in their states.

Governor Brown's budget proposes $16 billion next year for the Rail Authority, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports in a detailed rundown of the shifting costs and budget projections for the California plan.

California's high-speed rail plan would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a spur into the Central Valley, totaling 800 miles of track. Construction has already started on a 130-mile stretch in the San Joaquin Valley.