The California High-Speed Rail Authority selected former Santa Ana Assemblyman Tom Umberg to replace former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle as its chairman.
Pringle was at the end of his second term as chairman and was required by board policy to step down.
The selection of Umberg, a Democrat, to replace Pringle, a Republican, came as the board struggles to gain the confidence of the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.
The planned $43-billion high-speed rail project is supposed to connect Anaheim to San Francisco with trains that could reach 220 miles an hour in remote areas. It has been plagued by financial and management problems, eroding support from members of both parties in the Legislature.
A series of audits and citizen presentations at board meetings strongly criticized the authority’s management for adopting faulty ridership projections, paying millions of dollars to subcontractors without invoices and running roughshod over local neighborhood and farm interests.
Voters approved construction of the rail system in 2008 on the condition that no taxpayer dollars be used to operate it once construction is finished in about 20 years.
But critics have raised fears that the rail authority is recklessly rushing to begin construction in the Central Valley next year to qualify for federal stimulus funds. The authority lacks a solid plan for funding the rest of construction and for operating the system, critics said. Even Pringle questioned the competency of contractors.
The result, critics fear, is that contractors will reap millions of dollars and leave California taxpayers with the choice of either paying even more to run the trains or let the system sit idle.
Pringle and other board members have blamed the problems on the lack of staff to oversee prime contractor Parsons-Brinckerhoff and numerous subcontractors.
To help alleviate that problem, Timothy Buresh, formerly chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, has been hired to oversee planning for the Southern California leg of the rail system, the rail authority announced this week. That section is proposed to run from Bakersfield to Anaheim with an extension to San Diego.
Umberg, a lawyer with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and a former assistant U.S. attorney, served in the state Assembly from 1990 to 1994. Ironically, he defeated Pringle when he won his first term. He served in the Assembly again from 2004 to 2006 and has run for a number of other state and local offices.
Umberg also is a colonel in the Army Reserve and last year participated in High-Speed Rail Authority board meetings from Camp Eggers in Afghanistan. He was appointed by the Assembly speaker’s office to the rail board in 2008.
In other high-speed rail news, the state Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would place the rail authority under the state’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.
The bill, proposed by Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), would also tighten conflict of interest rules governing board members and require Senate confirmation of the rail authority’s executive director.
The Senate action comes after the California Legislative Analyst’s Office earlier this month urged the Legislature to take control of the planned $43-billion high-speed rail project away from its nine-member board.
— TRACY WOOD