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California high-speed rail chief Roelof Van Ark quits

Krissy Clark/KQED

Roelof Van Ark, CEO of California High Speed Rail Authority, addressing the board after announcing that he's stepping down.

Roelof van Ark, the 59-year-old head of the California high-speed rail agency, announced his resignation Thursday from the controversial and publicly scrutinized near $100 billion proposed project. It takes effect in two months.

His departure was announced at the rail authority's meeting today in Los Angeles.

Van Ark had only served since June of 2010. Van Ark has a long history of experience in high-speed rail, with 30 years of transportation experience. His resignation comes as the fate of the proposed high-speed line is being battled in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

"Clearly this project is a challenging one," van Ark told the California High Speed Rail Authority board in annoucing his resignation. "I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to play a part in the future transportation of California."

The board's chair, Thomas Umberg, also stepped aside as board chairman today, but will remain on the board. Unberg is an L.A. attorney who said he can't devote full time to being chairman, which he said was necessary at this critical time for high-speed rail in California.

The new chairman will be Dan Richard, a Northern California energy consultant who's available to serve as chair full-time. Richards said it's a challenging time for high-speed rail, but that he's ready to face it.

High-speed rail's momentum is in question; a state-appointed peer review board recently called into question whether bonds should even be issued to fund high-speed rail.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said earlier this week that she backs Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to merge the High-Speed Rail Authority with Caltrans.

At today's rail authority meeting, its board also chose to plan the train line through Palmdale rather than over the Grapevine. Dozens of Palmdale officials, residents and business leaders attended the meeting in support of the move, and that impressed board member Richard.

"People often read about the challenges to high-speed rail in California and some communities who are concerned about how it impacts them," Richard said. "But I am pleased that certainly in Palmdale, we have a community and community leaders who see the future of what high-speed rail could mean for their community."

Rail authority staff presented a new study showing that the Palmdale route would attract 2 million more riders a year than the Grapevine route and have a smaller environmental impact.

This post has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the names of Thomas Umberg and Dan Richard.

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