California High-Speed Rail’s Tough Week

Things are simply not going smoothly for the California High Speed Rail project right now.

After finally deciding that the route from LA to the Central Valley will travel through the Mojave dessert’s Antelope Valley instead of following I-5 over the Tehachapi Mountains via what’s known as the Grapevine route, the California High Speed Rail Authority was shaken by the news that both CEO Roelof van Ark and board chairman Tom Umberg would be leaving their positions.

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image via California High Speed Rail

In perhaps one of his final statements as CEO, van Ark said, “We conducted a conceptual study to update the engineering data from 2005 to see if the Grapevine route would save us time, distance and money. This re-evaluation makes it clear that running the train through the Antelope Valley will connect people in one of the county’s fastest-growing areas, have fewer environmental impacts, and afford more flexibility in route selection.”

A study released by the Authority said crossing the Antelope Valley into Sylmar would cost $15 billion to $15.5 billion (up from a $6.5 billion estimate in 2005), as compared with a $15.1 billion “risk adjusted capital cost estimate” for the Grapevine route. In 2005, the Grapevine option was estimated at $6.6 billion. Palmdale officials also resisted the Grapevine option, saying businesses in the area have made investments in anticipation of a bullet train station in the city.

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image via California High Speed Room

As for the two departures, Van Ark, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority since June 2010, will step down in about two months while Umberg will relinquish his position as chairman in February, but will remain a board member. Dan Richard, a co-founder of Heritage Oak Capital Partners, an infrastructure finance firm, will succeed Umberg as chairman. Richard was an elected member of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District from 1992 to 2004, twice serving as president of the board.

The resignations clearly signal all is not well within the authority and according to a report on businessweek.com the moves were serious enough to prompt a statement from the agency writing the checks for the project. “As the federal funding partner, the Department of Transportation continues to support California,” said Justin Nisly, an agency spokesman.  “We look forward to working with the entire board on this critical and transformative transportation initiative.”

While Van Ark cited personal reasons for his resignation, a story in the Sacramento Bee suggests the moves came from Governor Jerry Brown’s office and that “the changes were widely seen as a bid by Brown to recast the rail authority before legislative hearings start on the $98.5 billion project.”

Steve Duda lives in West Seattle, WA with three dogs and a lot of outdoor gear. A part-time fly fishing fishing guide and full-time writer, Steve’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Seattle Weekly, American Angler, Fly Fish Journal, The Drake, Democracy Now! and many others.

    • Tony R.

      It isn’t financially viable.u00a0 That’s all we need to know.u00a0 If some multi-billionaire wants to step up and finance it as his private “train set”, fine, but don’t stick the California taxpayer with this money pit.

      • Andrew D

        Don’t be to quick to judge, Tony. Here in Utah our highly conservative (and poorly educated) population fought for years to stop a mass transit rail system here. Everyone insisted that it would cost taxpayers, and that it would “never get used”. Within only months of project completion (years ago), ridership maxed out the train capacity, and we are now into our third major phase of expansion of the rail system (both commuter and high-speed intercity rail). On top of all of this, the system has been PROFITABLE, and did not cost taxpayers a single penny after construction costs were repaid from ticket fares.