California High Speed Rail Gets New CEO and a Bad Audit

Last Updated May 12, 2010 1:24 PM EDT

The high-speed rail agency that proposes to connect northern and southern California named its CEO last week. Roelef van Ark will leave his job as president of Alstom Transportation and allegedly take a 50% pay cut to helm the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

It's easy to see why the group unanimously chose van Ark. Alstom Transportation is the North American branch of the French company Alstom, which built France's TGV bullet trains. What's more difficult to figure out is why van Ark chose the state's rail authority.

On taking the job, van Ark will be immediately thrust into an environmental lawsuit against the authority's proposed railway and a state audit that says the agency is governed by poor planning, poor contract management, no oversight and is underfunded. The proposed project -- an 800-mile rail system featuring trains with top speeds of 220 mph that's been called the largest public works project in the nation -- is estimated to cost around $43 billion. So far, the agency has only lined up $12 billion and construction starts in 2012.

Van Ark, 58, who grew up in South Africa but is an American citizen, had this to say:

As someone who has devoted his career to this industry, there's no doubt in my mind that California is the place to be, and I''m honored to be given the opportunity to work with all partners to move California's high speed train project forward.
So perhaps he sees this all as a huge challenge, lawsuits and no money notwithstanding. It's not that environmental lawsuits are anything new in the Golden State. The towns embroiled in the lawsuits are the usual suspects -- small but tony towns who don't want their communities blighted by railroad tracks and the usual NIMBYisms:
"We've been very concerned about trying to shove high-speed rail into the Caltrain corridor," Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt said at the conference. "It would be a permanent disruption to 17 of some of the best communities in the state."
But the state audit, which alleges the authority is a financial mess, is a little harder to dismiss. It reports that the agency has overpaid contractors, including $46,000 for furniture for a contractor's personal use, and notes that the agency is still not tracking all expenditures by category -- a bad situation for an outfit that has to keep public and private funds separate.

Let's hope that van Ark, with his 30-odd years of management experience can rein in the agency and its bad habits or the largest public works project in the nation may never begin.

Image: CHRSA