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Antelope Valley on Fast Track

A state agency gives tentative approval to a high-speed rail line route that would go through Palmdale. Final vote is set for December.

September 23, 2004|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board tentatively approved a plan Wednesday to route the proposed bullet train through the Antelope Valley, with a station in Palmdale.

Compared with a competing route through the Grapevine along the Golden State Freeway, the Palmdale path would require the construction of 35 more miles of tracks and add 10 minutes to passenger travel time from the Central Valley to the Los Angeles Basin. But routing it through the Antelope Valley would be less costly, less damaging to parklands and less seismically risky, agency officials said.

The state board took a "straw vote" rather than a formal vote because its members did not have enough time to review all the reports on the issue, including more than 2,000 oral and written public comments the agency has received. A final vote is scheduled for December.

But board members were eager to share the direction they intend to take on the Palmdale route. Both that path and the rival, more westerly one along the Grapevine through the Tehachapi Mountains would link Los Angeles to Bakersfield and then continue north through the Central Valley.

"Today's decision was a huge decision, a major decision," board member Donna Andrews said. "It gives Palmdale so much more momentum."

The proposed 700-mile rail network, with trains traveling up to 220 mph, is intended to whisk riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 1/2 hours. A $10-billion bond measure to pay for the first leg of the project, from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, is slated for the ballot in fall 2006. Construction wouldn't be complete for at least eight years after that, according to agency officials.

The entire project, from San Diego to Sacramento, is projected to cost more than $30 billion.

Wednesday's board action followed a decade of intense lobbying by Antelope Valley officials to bring bullet trains to their region.

"Yay! Double-yay! It's a good day for the Antelope Valley," Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said after hearing about the board's action. "It supports the growth that's going on here. I'll buy the champagne now. I won't pop it until the final vote."

Antelope Valley commuters currently spend as much as two hours each way in stop-and-go traffic to get to downtown Los Angeles. With high-speed rail, experts estimate that the trip could be made in as little as 26 minutes.

"It'll provide a rapid connection from the Antelope Valley to the Los Angeles Basin," said Lancaster Mayor Frank C. Roberts, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "It'll stimulate our economy to a certain extent because of the ease with which we can get back and forth without relying on the freeways."

In a presentation to the board, staff members said the Grapevine route could affect a lot of major parkland, including Fort Tejon State Historic Park, Angeles National Forest, Los Padres National Forest, Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area and Pyramid Lake. It would also require more tunneling, which is expensive.

And there were seismic concerns for that route: Construction along the I-5 would follow the San Gabriel fault for 20 miles and then cross over two other fault lines.

In contrast, routing through the Antelope Valley would not require going through major parks. High-speed rail could also serve Palmdale Airport, agency officials said.

Also Wednesday, agency staff recommended against building a spur from Union Station to Los Angeles International Airport because the 15-mile segment would cost more than $2 billion and probably attract few riders.

The board also tentatively approved routing through downtown Burbank rather than Burbank Airport, past parkland being carved out of the Taylor Yard rail center near downtown Los Angeles and through Fullerton in Orange County.

Members postponed discussion of a controversial route proposal for the mountainous region between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. Instead, members asked agency staff to conduct further study -- a move praised by some environmentalists.

But others criticized the commission for failing to satisfy their concerns on the potential environmental damage to parkland elsewhere in the state.

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