Dan Richard, rail authority's likely next chairman, is ready to get complex project on track

A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
California High Speed Rail Authority

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After a leadership shake-up last week, Dan Richard is expected to become the next chairman of the state’s High Speed Rail Authority Board.

Richard has worked as an energy consultant, a utility executive and helped the Bay Area Rapid Transit system secure billions of dollars for improvements and expansion. His experience in infrastructure finance led Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint him to the High Speed Rail Authority board last August. Since then, Richard acknowledges, it’s seemed as if the idea of a $98 billion bullet train connecting L.A. and San Francisco has gotten off track.

"The legislature has a lot of questions that they need to have addressed," Richard told reporters after a board meeting last week in Los Angeles. "We need to have a staff that helps us move forward to actually begin construction next year. There’s just a lot of work to do."

At the top of that staff is the soon-to-be-vacant chief executive officer slot. Roelof Van Ark, who helped build Europe’s rapid train system, announced at the same board meeting that he's leaving the job in two months. Also at the board meeting, Thomas Umberg, the current chairman of the rail authority's board, said he would step aside as chairman, but remain on the board. Umberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney and former state legislator, says though the chairman role isn't a full-time job, at this point, it demands full-time focus. Dan Richard said he’s ready to make that commitment.

"I believe in this as something that is absolutely essential for California in the 21st century. I think we can do it right. And I think it will bring our state together and create a new technology base that is comparable to the aircraft industry or Silicon Valley, " Richard said.

Richard supports Brown’s proposal to fold the High Speed Rail Authority into a new department that also includes Caltrans, the Highway Patrol, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"For the High Speed Rail Authority, it would mean that we will be able to avoid duplication of staff because we will be able to rely on staff in these other departments," said Richard of the idea. "It will bring closer coordination with Caltrans, which has deep experience. And all Californians should be happy because it’s going to create efficiencies and cost savings."

Brown is expected to reaffirm his support for high speed rail during Wednesday’s “State of the State” address in Sacramento. That’s despite harsh criticism over the project’s constantly rising cost.

"This is a difficult and complex state, but underneath all that, it’s also a state where people believe that great things are possible," said Richard. "I think that was what the governor was tapping into when he said he supported high speed rail because he still felt California was a place where we do big things," he said.

"But it doesn’t mean that it’s not hard," he added. "It’s very hard."