High-speed rail pick former Caltrans exec for CEO

The Fresno BeeMay 29, 2012 

Jeffrey P. Morales, a former executive director of Caltrans, is the California High-Speed Rail Authority's choice to become the agency's new CEO and executive director.

The rail authority's board voted Tuesday to offer the job to Morales, 52, who now works for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the international consulting company that is serving as the authority's project management firm on the statewide rail program.

"I think we've made a great choice here, folks," board chairman Dan Richard said after the vote in Sacramento. "I think it's the right person to move us to the next level."

If the contract details can be worked out, Morales will take the agency's helm from Thomas Fellenz, the authority's chief counsel. Fellenz has been filling in on an interim basis since Roelof van Ark left in March.

Morales led the California Department of Transportation from 2000 to 2004. After stepping down from the state job, Morales was hired by Parsons Brinckerhoff as a senior vice president.

The authority's vice chairwoman, former congresswoman Lynn Schenk of San Diego, was instrumental in Morales' hiring at Caltrans when she was then-Gov. Gray Davis' chief of staff.

The choice comes at a critical time for the rail agency, which faces growing skepticism among the public -- and concerns in the Legislature -- over its ability to build the proposed 520-mile, 220-mph passenger train system to link San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Legislators in Sacramento are debating whether to allocate $2.7 billion from Proposition 1A, a high-speed rail bond approved by voters in 2008, for the 2012-13 budget year to begin construction in the San Joaquin Valley. The state money is required to match more than $3 billion in federal transportation and stimulus funds committed by the Obama administration for the project.

Among the concerns: a price tag that has wobbled from about $45 billion in 2009 to more than $98 billion last fall, and back down to about $68 billion this year; and uncertainty over where the money would come from to finish construction once the first $6 billion stretch is built between Madera and Bakersfield.

In choosing Morales, the authority's board opted to stick with someone it knows well. Morales, who lives in Sacramento, was chosen last summer to head up efforts by Parsons Brinckerhoff to develop a new business and funding plan for the rail authority.

Parsons Brinckerhoff holds the single biggest contract with the authority: seven years and $199 million.

As the project management company, Parsons Brinckerhoff oversees regional engineering and environmental contractors, each of which is being paid tens of millions of dollars. Yet another consultant, San Francisco-based T.Y. Lin International, has an $8 million contract to monitor the work of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Before joining Caltrans, Morales was the executive vice president of the Chicago Transit Authority.

Over the past two weeks, the board has held at least two closed-session meetings at which it interviewed candidates. Richard said a search firm hired by the authority "cast a wide net" and provided a list of candidates from across the country.

Authority board members Tom Richards of Fresno and Michael Rossi will negotiate with Morales and are expected to present a contract for formal approval by the board within weeks. Richard said he expects the contract to include not only compensation and a starting date, but also establish performance goals for the job.

The new CEO will be in charge of leading the agency through the selection of contractors for the start of construction in the central San Joaquin Valley, as well as pursuing additional money for the statewide project.

Richard added that Morales also will be responsible for quickly filling a raft of vacancies among other top jobs at the authority and rebuilding the troubled agency's communication and outreach efforts.

According to a consulting report to the authority's board, the agency's maximum base CEO salary of $31,250 a month -- or $375,000 per year -- is about 24% higher than the average of salaries paid by other major transportation agencies such as Caltrain, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Orange County Transportation Agency, the San Diego Association of Governments and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System.

Of agencies that responded to the consultant's survey, only the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency offers a higher maximum salary than the rail authority, at $34,608 a month.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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