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. Public opinion about the project has fallen sharply, according to a recent Field Poll, and the Legislature is highly skeptical.
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.
Brown, a Democrat, became a vocal supporter of the project last year and appointed two advisers, Richard and Mike Rossi, to the rail board. This month, Brown proposed folding the authority into a new state agency, the Transportation Agency, a measure rail officials support.
Van Ark was hired in 2010 and oversaw the authority's creation of an updated business plan that raised the estimated cost of the project to almost $100 billion over 20 years. Lawmakers said the plan was more credible than before, but many lawmakers remain critical of the project's management and cost.
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.
While Richard said he was "very skeptical of that notion" when he joined the board, he said, "I sit here today as somebody who's been fully convinced."
Van Ark told The Bee last year that he considered it a personal challenge to ensure implementation of the project.
"I really believe that California should have a system like this," he said. "This state is so well positioned for high-speed rail."
Editor's note: Updated at 3:05 p.m. to include comments from the meeting in Los Angeles.
PHOTO CREDIT: Roelof van Ark, 2011. The Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling