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Palmdale On Board With High-Speed Rail Plan

The pro-development city has spent $500,000 on efforts to be part of the 700-mile route.

August 09, 2004|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Up and down the state, people have complained that they don't want the planned bullet train from San Diego to Sacramento thundering through their communities.

But not in Palmdale.

The Antelope Valley city has spent more than half a million dollars on lawyers, public relations specialists, and economic and geological studies to persuade state officials to bring the high-speed trains its way.

"Quite frankly, we're prepared to go further to win the alignment," said Palmdale Mayor James C. Ledford Jr.

Residents near other stretches of the proposed 700-mile route -- in Silicon Valley and near Stockton, for example -- have complained to the California High-Speed Rail Authority that they don't want 220-mph trains with horns blaring barreling through their neighborhoods.

No one voiced any such concerns about the proposed Antelope Valley route -- one of two paths being considered in the region -- at the most recent public hearing in Los Angeles in June.

Officials in pro-growth Palmdale believe the train would bring an influx of business people to work in new office complexes and would thrill commuters who could zip home to Palmdale from downtown Los Angeles in 20 minutes.

Violet Talavera's story is typical of many Palmdale residents. Talavera, an accountant, moved to the city 10 years ago to escape city life but hated the 1 1/2 -hour drive to Los Angeles.

"When I want to go below, I don't want to drive," she said. "That's part of the reason I opened my own business here, so I wouldn't have to commute."

In addition to the convenience of a train, Talavera believes it would spur development, helping her gain more clients. "The more houses are built, the more business we'll have," she said.

Palmdale, with 130,000 residents, occupies about 65,000 sparsely developed acres in the Mojave Desert in northern Los Angeles County.

Since the Antelope Valley Freeway opened in the 1960s, the town has been friendly to developers. Luxury homes in gated communities with names such as "Pacific Renaissance" and big-box shopping plazas with espresso cafes seem to spring up every few months. Sport utility vehicles with Harry Potter stickers and shiny trucks with vanity plates dominate the city's pothole-free roads.

But the Antelope Valley is the fastest growing part of Los Angeles County, and commuters choke freeways for hours in the morning and evening. Palmdale officials believe a high-speed train would help relieve the congestion.

California began work 11 years ago on the high-speed rail link, which would whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 1/2 hours, and has spent $30 million on the planning. A bond to pay for the first phase of the $37-billion project -- the leg from Los Angeles to San Francisco -- is slated for the ballot in fall 2006. Extensions to San Diego and Sacramento would follow. It would be decades before passengers could climb on board.

For the trip between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, rail authority board members and staff are considering two paths through the Tehachapi Mountains. The straightest route would follow the Golden State Freeway along the Grapevine. The alternate route would hook east into the Antelope Valley, adding about 40 miles and 10 minutes to the trip.

The staff hopes to recommend a route by year's end.

A Palmdale representative has attended every meeting since the high-speed rail effort began, but in the last 12 months, the city has stepped up its campaign.

In presentations before the rail board, environmental and geological consultants hired by Palmdale have argued that the Golden State Freeway route would cost more and take longer to build because the rock there is weak and the tunnels would have to be stabilized.

The city also brought in a smart-growth expert who testified that without a transit hub on the railroad between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, Bakersfield would become like a suburb of Los Angeles, and suburban sprawl would replace rich agricultural land. A Palmdale station, he argued, would encourage growth in a place that is better suited for development.

At the June public hearing in Los Angeles, rail authority Executive Director Mehdi Morshed said with a laugh: "I think we've had more help from the city of Palmdale than any other station in the state."

"Whether we wanted it or not," quipped board member Ron Diridon.

The city's high-priced efforts appear to be paying off.

Palmdale has garnered support for the Antelope Valley route from the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, several congressmen, and cities including Los Angeles and Chowchilla.

Some rail board members have called Palmdale's presentations "very impressive."

It wasn't always that way.

"The authority had a strong bias for the Grapevine alignment," said Stephen H. Williams, Palmdale's assistant city manager. "I believe it was based on information that was probably not well researched. We have provided that research and background."

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