By Ralph Vartabedian, June 30, 2014
An artist's concept of a high-speed rail car in California. Planners are
adding a Los Angeles County segment between Burbank and Palmdale to
address concerns that construction was starting in the Central Valley.
Jeff Morales of the California High-Speed Rail Authority says new
funding approved by the Legislature "means we can bring benefits to
Southern California sooner."
In a strategic shift to secure new funding for California's bullet
train project, state officials intend to accelerate their plans to build
a Los Angeles County section of the $68-billion system.
rail officials said they want to start a segment between Burbank and
Palmdale in the next several years as they continue working on a
130-mile stretch of the line in the Central Valley. The revised approach
could be formally adopted by the rail board as early as next month.
move addresses a central political challenge faced by the project:
criticism over starting construction in the rural Central Valley and
delaying benefits for Southern California and Bay Area urban areas for
more than a decade.
and some supporters have attacked the Central Valley plan as a "train
to nowhere," even though the region is growing quickly. High-speed train
service in northern Los Angeles County could help relieve traffic
congestion in a key corridor. A Palmdale to Burbank bullet train trip
could take 14 minutes to 16 minutes. By contrast, existing Metrolink
rail service follows a winding route built in the 1870s and takes 90
minutes — which still can be faster than driving in rush hour.
is a huge game-changer," said Richard Katz, a former state Assembly
leader and current member of the Metrolink board. "The visibility will
make it real and people can see where their tax dollars are being
Voters approved a $9-billion bond measure in 2008 and the Obama
administration has provided grants of $3.2 billion, but that is a
fraction of the construction cost for the Los Angeles to San Francisco
line. Last month, as part of a new state budget, the Legislature
provided about $250 million this fiscal year for the project from fees
that companies pay for producing greenhouse gases, as well as 25% of
future income from the levy.
Although that could still fall short of the money required to
complete the project on schedule, it has put the endeavor on stronger
But significant uncertainties remain. They
include the state's ability to secure all of the additional construction
funding, avoid costly construction delays, weather a growing number of
legal challenges and operate the line without taxpayer subsidies.
construction in Southern California requires a significant number of
government actions, including selecting an exact route, completing
environmental reviews and a massive amount of technical and design work,
and choosing a contractor.
Unlike the flat Central Valley, where the state hopes to begin heavy
construction this summer, the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles
will be a world-class engineering challenge, involving extremely rugged
terrain and a seismically active area that includes the San Andreas
Preliminary plans for the Los Angeles County section include
tunnels up to eight miles long.
The rail authority has focused on a
roughly 40-mile route following the Antelope Valley Freeway, which goes
over Soledad Pass at an elevation of 3,225 feet. But Los Angeles County
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes most of the
area, has asked the rail agency to consider a direct route from Burbank
to Palmdale under the mountain range, requiring a tunnel about 15 miles
long, according to his staff. The authority has agreed to consider the
Bullet train planners always expected to place a station
in the San Fernando Valley, and Burbank was the most likely choice.
Ultimately, the bullet train track would connect Union Station in
downtown Los Angeles to the Transbay Terminal transportation hub in
central San Francisco. But by stopping construction in Burbank, at least
initially, the authority would postpone the more difficult political
and engineering task of reaching the heart of Los Angeles.
authority estimates the cost of building the section from Palmdale to
Los Angeles' Union Station at $13.5 billion. So far, it does not have an
estimate for the Palmdale to Burbank section.
The rail project
has encountered stiff opposition from some groups in the Central Valley
and Silicon Valley, triggering lawsuits and political compromises on the
design of the system. By contrast, there has been little organized
opposition in Southern California. No major city has attempted to block
or significantly modify the plan. Indeed, Palmdale threatened to sue the
state if the project did not include a stop in the city. Los Angeles
officials say that the project is yielding a number of benefits for
other rail services, including more grade separations and improvements
at Union Station.
new building strategy was outlined in a June letter written by Jeff
Morales, chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, to
state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), during state budget
negotiations. Morales said his agency's board of directors would be
requested to formally adopt the revised approach once the Legislature
agreed to allocate a portion of greenhouse gas fees to the bullet train.
That action was taken last month.
Morales said in a statement
Monday that the new long-term funding has provided "opportunities to
accelerate the high-speed rail program and connect California from north
to south and south to north."
"It means we can bring benefits to
Southern California sooner, while at the same time reducing greenhouse
gases faster and creating overall cost savings," he said.
earlier letter to Pavley, Morales had written that the Burbank to
Palmdale section could be "an operating segment on its own." That is an
important legal distinction because voter-approved bond funding can be
spent only on operable segments where all of the needed funds have been
identified before construction work begins. The newly committed funding
could be used to match billions in bond funding over time, and help pay
for the Los Angeles section.
The commitment to accelerate
construction in Los Angeles County came in response to concerns raised
by Senate Democrats who supported the bullet train, but had quietly
voiced concerns about the current approach, according to legislative
In return for agreeing to the new long-term source of
funding, the Democrats wanted to secure more immediate benefits for
commuters and quicker reductions in greenhouse gases, which a Los
Angeles bullet train segment could provide, according to legislative
staff members. State law requires that greenhouse gas fees be allocated
to projects that can reduce emissions by the largest margins in the
Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), the newly
elected leader of the upper house, was a key force in speeding up bullet
train construction in Los Angeles County. He had been critical of
beginning the project in the Central Valley. "It's egregious," he said
in a recent interview. "It's locomotive malpractice."
and De León had been pushing for more spending in the Bay Area and
Southern California to improve regional rail systems. In the end, Pavley
wasn't satisfied with the rail authority's new approach, and did not
cast a vote for the cap and trade funding plan for the bullet train.