CHSRA CEO Roelof van Ark Resigns
At today’s board meeting in Los Angeles California High Speed Rail CEO Roelof van Ark announced his resignation:
Roelof van Ark, chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, announced this afternoon that he is quitting, the latest setback for the state’s beleaguered campaign to build a nearly $100 billion rail network in California.
His resignation, announced at a board meeting in Los Angeles and effective in two months, comes at a critical point for the project, with rail officials bidding for Legislative approval to start construction in the Central Valley this fall….
Van Ark cited personal reasons for his resignation.
“I need to focus myself more on my family, and maybe some other interests,” he told board members. He said he may continue on the project as a consultant.
Van Ark used his resignation announcement to reiterate his support of the rail authority’s decision to start construction in the Central Valley, controversial because it is far from California’s population centers. The administration signaled no change of course.
Is this really a setback? I’m not entirely sure. Van Ark was, from all I have seen and heard, a good leader for the project. It’s definitely a loss and not something I would prefer to see. It will also produce some challenges as a transition unfolds. But that’s not the same thing as a “setback.”
What this does indicate is that the momentum to combine the Authority and Caltrans under a Transportation Agency may be stronger than we realize, and Van Ark may have felt his role in such an agency would be smaller. No matter the actual reason, if the Authority is indeed combined, then they will actually get access to a lot more expertise than they currently have. So while the loss of van Ark is going to cause problems, there is a path forward to provide insight and expertise to the Authority.
Van Ark’s departure comes alongside two other staff departures. Deputy Director Dan Leavitt is leaving the Authority, as is Rachel Wall, the Authority’s press secretary.
Additionally, changes are underway at the CHSRA board:
Minutes after van Ark’s announcement, Tom Umberg announced that he is stepping down as chairman of the rail board, though he will remain a member of the board. Umberg is to be replaced next month by Dan Richard, an adviser Gov. Jerry Brown appointed to the board last year.
The chairmanship rotates regularly so I don’t see this as a negative in any way. In fact, if anything it may strengthen Governor Brown’s hold on the board.
Many media outlets will spin this as a negative for the project, but that’s a reflection of their growing levels of pessimism. Objectively there’s just no way to know what the impact will be since we haven’t seen yet where the project goes from here. New blood isn’t a bad thing – it’s been an intensive couple of years for the project and that has probably taken its toll on staff. There’s something to be said for brining in fresh people who also have a background in HSR projects, rail planning, or transportation planning more generally. That’s no slight against current or former staff, to be clear. Van Ark, Leavitt, and Wall have done excellent work.
Responses to van Ark’s resignation have started coming in. First up is Tom Umberg:
“With admiration, I would like to thank Mr. van Ark for his service to California and the high-speed rail project. The announcement of his resignation will resonate throughout the State. His energy, passion and dedication to this critically important project are a testament to his character and his professionalism. We are extremely lucky to have his continued counsel and advice as we move to implement high-speed rail in California. I remain grateful for his professionalism and friendship.”
Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani also offered her thoughts:
“I am grateful to Mr. Van Ark and Chair Umberg for their tireless efforts and tenacity during the most critical early stages of taking High Speed Rail from a vision, to reality, bringing us “high-speed jobs” with the start of construction in September 2012.
“We have always known there would be challenging circumstances building the nation’s first high-speed Rail system, particularly when it requires being sensitive and responsive to diverse communities, with varying needs along the entire 800 mile stretch of the project all at once. Mr. Van Ark and Mr. Umberg have worked with stakeholders to address everything from whether “wind speed” from the train will affect bee pollination in agricultural areas, the importance of respecting sacred sites and Native American burial grounds near the Grapevine, the value we place on involving small emerging business enterprises during the engineering and construction contracting process, building the first public private partnership of this scope in California, and navigating the political turbulence associated with building the nation’s first High –Speed Rail system. I have deep respect and owe my deepest gratitude to both Mr. Van Ark and Mr. Umberg.”
Governor Brown has been a vocal supporter of the project, and last year and appointed two advisers, Dan Richard and Mike Rossi, to the rail board. Board Member Richard will serve as the new Chair of the Authority Board.
“Today represents a turning point for the Governor to put his stamp on the project. I am pleased that his long-trusted Advisor, Dan Richard, has been chosen to succeed Chair Umberg, and I am confident that Governor Brown will put his full resources behind the success of High Speed Rail. I remain committed to working with Governor Brown, and Chair Richard to move this project forward and put California’s economy on a fast-track to recovery with “high speed jobs.”