Thomas J. Umberg
California's ambitions to build a high-speed rail system that links San Francisco and Los Angeles via a two-and-a-half-hour train ride appear to be derailing. Pummeled by lawsuits, soaring costs, and partisan politics, the project last month received a scathing peer review that urged state legislators not to approve $2.7 billion in bond sales for the project until it improves its business plan. The following week the California High-Speed Rail Authority's CEO, Roelof van Ark, and board chairman, Thomas J. Umberg, resigned. Umberg, a litigator for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and a former California assemblyman, will remain on the board after his chairmanship ends this month. We spoke with him about the system's future. -V.S.
Q. Is the project on the verge of collapse?
It's still moving forward at full speed. I understand the public perception, and I also understand that a project like this is not unlike the construction of the [state's] aqueduct, the Golden Gate Bridge, the campuses of the University of California, and the I-5. Especially at the outset, they undergo extensive and sometimes withering criticism.
Why has the project's cost more than doubled to $100 billion?
The number to build out the entire system by 2033 is certainly a very large number. But the way to view the project is in segments. The first 130 miles will be built with the $6 billion that we have currently in hand. The next portion, which will allow travelers to go from the Central Valley to either the L.A. Basin or the Bay Area on true high-speed rail, costs approximately $30 billion, of which we have identified $12 billion for construction.
Why did you step down as chairman?
With a full-time practice and my involvement in the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, it doesn't do the project justice to have me continue as the chair. ... Contrary to press reports, the peer review really didn't have anything to do with it. ... Probably the most important thing ... is to have the [rail authority] move into the newly created Department of Transportation, because it means that it will have adequate staff and the governor can exercise more effective leadership.
Given the administration's support, would you say the project is better off now than it was six months ago?
I may be the only person in California who says that, but yes, I would.
Of the many lawsuits filed by municipalities regarding the project, which concerns you the most?
We're in the unique position of having been sued to keep the project out of and to bring it into communities. There is nothing sure in life other than death, taxes, and litigation. ... Thus far we've been successful in all litigation filed, and we're being careful to comply with [the California Environmental Quality Act] and [the National Environmental Policy Act].