SACRAMENTO -- In a shake-up of California's high-speed rail project, Roelof van Ark stepped down today as the CEO of the High-Speed Rail Authority, while Tom Umberg announced he will step aside as chairman to make way for Gov. Jerry Brown's appointee, Dan Richard.
The exodus of the authority's top officials came as criticism of the project has reached a peak and the prospects for its survival appear dim.
Van Ark, who took over as CEO in 2010, was the architect of the business plan that revised its cost estimate from the $33 billion that voters approved to the widely panned 20-year $98 billion estimate earlier this year.
He bowed out at the rail authority's board meeting this afternoon in Los Angeles by insisting that the controversial plan to start laying tracks in the Central Valley was sound.
"It is the correct way to achieve true high-speed rail in California," he said.
Umberg, who will remain on the board, said the chairmanship "requires daily, if not hourly, attention. I've decided that while I'm not leaving, there should be new leadership. ... It's time now to have someone with time, capacity, expertise and leadership to take over as chairman."
Richard and Mike Rossi were part of Brown's first shake-up of the rail authority when he brought them in as advisers last year.
"Roeloef Van Ark and Tom Umberg spearheaded California High-Speed Rail through its earliest stages of planning and development, and I thank them for their service," Brown said in a written statement. "Dan Richard has the knowledge, experience and vision to guide the project at this critical time, and I applaud his selection as chair of the High-Speed Rail Authority Board."
Richard's appointment was an early signal that Brown would remain committed to the project. Richard served under Brown as his deputy legal affairs secretary and deputy assistant for science and technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Richard has Bay Area ties. He served on the BART board of directors from 1992 to 2004 and as senior vice president of public policy and government relations at PG&E from 1997 to 2006.
Despite criticism coming from all corners -- from Republicans to the High-Speed Rail Authority's peer review group -- Brown has remained dogged in his defense of the project.
"I'm of the view that this is a time for big ideas, not shrinking back and looking for a hole to climb into," he told reporters recently. "I think we've got to move forward."
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged Brown to merge the High-Speed Rail Authority with CalTrans, a move she said would help ensure the state doesn't lose $3.5 billion in federal dollars.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon . Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics .
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