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.

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

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.