Cities in High-Speed Rail's Trail Have Mixed Reactions

Some officials in Santa Clarita, Burbank, Palmdale, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County have asked the California High-Speed Rail Authority to consider alternative routes, but no city has expressed serious opposition.
by | November 27, 2012

A few hundred faithful pass through the doors of Pastor Bob Childress' sanctuary every Sunday, but he worries that sometime in the next decade a 220-mph bullet train may take their place.

The future route of the train, as currently drawn, takes dead aim for the Church of the Canyons, an evangelical refuge on Sand Canyon Road in Santa Clarita with a congregation of 450.

"This will be an excellent test of our faith," Childress said. California's bullet train has generated plenty of opposition in the areas around the San Gabriel Mountains. Elsewhere in Southern California, though, local governments are either embracing the train or choosing to remain neutral.

"It's out there in possibility land," San Fernando City Manager Al Hernandez said, noting there is little buzz about the project in his community, even though it may get one of the few passenger stations in the region.

Some officials in Santa Clarita, Burbank, Palmdale, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County have asked the California High-Speed Rail Authority to consider alternative routes, but no city has expressed serious opposition. In fact, Palmdale officials threatened to sue the rail authority if the bullet train did not go through their city.

When rail agency officials met privately with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa about 11 months ago, they were prepared for him to demand concessions to fund local transit in exchange for his support. But he stunned senior rail officials by telling them to "just do what's right for the project and I will support you," according to officials at City Hall.

Groups opposing the project say sentiment may change after upcoming environmental studies detail all of the homes, schools, businesses and other locations that could be affected. Next year, the rail authority will issue two key environmental reports that will begin the legal process of defining the exact route between Bakersfield and downtown Los Angeles.

"Just wait until they understand what it is going to do to them," said Elizabeth Allen, a co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Development, a Bay Area group that has sharply criticized the project.

It wasn't until detailed environmental reports were released in the Central Valley that agriculture interests helped fund a lawsuit to stop construction. About two years ago, Democratic leaders in the Bay Area began exerting pressure on the rail agency to abandon building elevated tracks through wealthy Silicon Valley cities and instead use existing commuter rail tracks.

The Bay Area eventually won that demand for a "blended system," which will sharply curtail speeds to about 110 mph or less from San Jose to San Francisco, and limit the number of peak-hour bullet trains that can operate. Essentially, true bullet train service will end at San Jose.

There are no such speed limits planned in L.A. County, but Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich would like to see one.

Antonovich, whose district covers miles of the route from Palmdale to the San Fernando Valley, wants the bullet trains to use existing Metrolink tracks and limit speeds to 110 mph.

"This has to be realistic, and in these urban areas you can't have 220-mph trains with safety and community support," said Antonovich, who is also chairman of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "They are completely misinformed."

But at slower speeds the bullet train project might fail to meet the mandates of a 2008 bond measure, which required that trips from L.A. to San Francisco take no longer than 2 hours and 40 minutes. So far, the rail authority shows no sign of adopting Antonovich's proposal and is moving ahead to solidify the plan for full-speed operations in L.A. County.

In Burbank, meanwhile, city officials are "cautiously neutral" about the bullet train, said David Kriske, the deputy planner for transportation.

Burbank is proposing that the rail authority build a station near Bob Hope Airport, aiming to link the airport to the region's future surface transportation system. If that proposal goes through, it will mean the existing 100-foot-wide rail right of way will have to be expanded significantly to accommodate the station.

"There is the idea that this isn't a real project," he added.

The rail authority, however, is moving ahead. Northbound bullet trains would stay on the existing right of way used by Metrolink until they reach Santa Clarita. That right of way in some places isn't big enough to accommodate two additional bullet train tracks and the existing Metrolink track.

As a result, there will have to be acquisitions of property, though it is unclear where those will occur, said Don Sepulveda, executive officer for regional rail at Metro.

"We are trying to design the route so it doesn't create a huge community debacle," he said.

So far, Santa Clarita is not officially opposed to the project, said Michael Murphy, the intergovernmental relations officer.

But after a meeting in June, which attracted about 200 concerned residents, the City Council sent a letter to the rail authority saying it had "serious concerns." Included in the letter was a request that the authority extend an 8-mile-long tunnel under the city by 2 miles to avoid a future development the city hopes will create new jobs, Murphy said.

About two dozen homes in the city are in the projected path of the bullet train, Murphy said. Where the rail line would emerge from a tunnel in the affluent Sand Canyon area of Santa Clarita the effects would be significant.

Under the current plan, it would go through what is now the front door of the Church of the Canyons, Childress said. The church hasn't formally opposed the plan, though many in the congregation are concerned. The pastor said it's up to God what happens.

The line also would pass about a football-field length from the Sulfur Springs Elementary School, creating a noise and safety problem, said Michael Hogan, a school board trustee and chairman of a local rail group.

Rail authority officials say they are trying to work closely with the cities along the route. "The cities in Southern California see the benefits, but also recognize there will be impacts, and we are working with them to address those," said Jeff Morales, the rail authority's chief executive.

The potential effect on unincorporated communities further north, including Acton and Agua Dulce, has also generated opposition.

"We have tried to work with the authority for years without satisfactory results," said Acton Town Council President Michael Hughes. "All of our comments were falling on deaf ears."

A survey of the community found 97% of Acton residents were against it, Hughes added.

The views are quite different an hour's drive away in Tehachapi, where the main line of the Union Pacific runs through downtown and the town embraces its 125-year-old railroad culture.

Each day a couple of dozen freight trains announce their arrival with blasting horns that echo for miles. Aiming to fix the apparent nuisance, city officials negotiated with the railroads several years ago for "quiet zones." But the initiative fell apart when residents protested that they liked to hear the whistles blow. Such sentiments bode well for the bullet train, which would run through the city's northern boundary.

Councilwoman Susan Wiggins, part of a political clan that includes her late brother Michael Deaver, President Reagan's deputy chief of staff, says it's a non-issue in Tehachapi.

"I can't think of one person standing up at a City Council meeting fussing about it."

(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times

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