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High-speed rail project faces setbacks

(ALEX BAYER/The Stanford Daily)

California’s High-Speed Rail (HSR) project has suffered setbacks recently, including the resignation of its director Roelof van Ark, effective in two months, on Thursday, Jan. 12. Chair of the High Speed Rail’s Board of Directors Thomas Umberg also stepped down.


While Umberg will be replaced by two-time Bay Area Rapid Transit Board member Dan Richard, the project’s leadership and sustainability will now depend on support from California Governor Jerry Brown.


(ALEX BAYER/The Stanford Daily)

The project aims to construct the nation’s first high-speed rail, connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco on an 800-mile track. As the track would stretch through Menlo Park and Palo Alto, 36.2 acres of Stanford-owned land would be affected.


Voters approved the project in 2009, but expenses have doubled to $98.5 billion, causing voters to scrutinize the project.


Van Ark, who played a major role in spearheading the project, resigned for personal reasons, reported The Sacramento Bee and the Palo Alto Weekly.


“I need to focus myself more on my family, and maybe some other interests,” he said to both The Bee and the Weekly.


In a Jan. 12 press release, California assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani emphasized the roles both Van Ark and Umberg played in the initial conception of the project.


“Mr. Van Ark and Mr. Umberg have worked with stakeholders to address everything from whether ‘wind speed’ from the train will affect bee pollination in agricultural areas, the importance of respecting sacred sites and Native American burial grounds near the Grapevine, the value we place on involving small emerging business enterprises during the engineering and construction contracting process, building the first public private partnership of this scope in California and navigating the political turbulence associated with building the nation’s first high-speed rail system,” Galgiani wrote.


“I have deep respect and owe my deepest gratitude to both Mr. Van Ark and Mr. Umberg,” she continued.


Alain Enthoven, professor emeritus of public and private management, co-authored a report published Oct. 12 that analyzed 12 misleading statements found in the California High Speed Rail Authority’s 2012 Drafted Business Plan. Enthoven’s report critically analyzed each proposal in the plan and elaborated on the low likelihood of the proposals coming to fruition.


The report also predicted the critical financial consequences.


“Without all that becoming true, and if the Governor insists the project go forward, the State will require voters to approve at least another $50 billion– $90 billion of bonds; plus face the costs of annual operating subsidies,” Enthoven’s report stated.


Enthoven expressed his own understanding of the rationale behind Van Ark’s resignation.


“I think that Van Ark decided this ship was sinking what with exploding costs, declining public confidence in what they say or in the project [and] rising public opposition,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. “I am amazed that Jerry Brown is continuing to support this money-loser at a time when we are cutting education spending.”


Despite the increasing negative feedback, Brown declared his full support for the project at his State of the State speech on Jan. 18.


“Critics of the high-speed rail project abound, as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed,” he said. “The Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical, and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal, ‘Totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.”


Galgiani also stated in her press release that she trusts Brown to continue his support for the rail and that it will allow him to “put his stamp on the project.”


“I remain committed to working with Governor Brown and Chair Richard to move this project forward and put California’s economy on a fast-track to recovery with ‘high speed jobs,’” Galgiani wrote.


As to whether Brown’s strengthened and renewed activism will have a positive effect on the rail’s delayed progress, State Senator Ted W. Lieu stated that the project is entirely dependent on the governor’s efforts.


“He is a much more practical governor now than maybe 30 years ago, but he is still a dreamer,” Lieu said in an interview with The New York Times. “High-speed rail is very evocative and is one of those things that I think he would like to be part of his legacy.”

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