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High-speed trains may collide with L.A. River plans

Two environmental goals -- mass transit and reclaimed open space -- may be mutually exclusive.

October 18, 2009|Ari B. Bloomekatz

The plan to build a network of high-speed bullet trains across California is facing opposition from the heart of Los Angeles, where community leaders fear the line will hurt efforts for another grand project: revitalizing the L.A. River.

The rail plan, which has picked up considerable steam since voters approved the nearly $10-billion bond measure in 2008, would use Union Station as a major hub, and the line probably would run along the Los Angeles River.

But some elected officials and residents believe the proposed rail alignment would seriously clash with their vision for the area, which involves replacing the dilapidated industrial proprieties along the river with green space, recreation areas and community facilities.

The situation makes for delicate politics. Many L.A. officials strongly support the bullet train concept and believe that the Union Station hub would fit into the county's efforts to expand subway and light rail service. But they also believe that revitalizing the river is an important part of making the city core more livable for residents and attractive to visitors.

The proposed rail routes would run near Taylor Yard, a 247-acre freight switching facility in Cypress Park that was closed by 1985. Part of Taylor yard, which is north of Union Station, is still used for rail maintenance and storage, but it also includes Rio de Los Angeles State Park and sites for a planned high school, green space and a mixed-use housing development. The Los Angeles River runs next to it.

"To take a step backward, to put in a train, it's not going to help the quality of life," said Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council chairman Gustavo Lizarde.

Lizarde grew up in Lincoln Heights, moved to Cypress Park in the early 1980s and 25 years ago took over his father's auto service shop on North Figueroa Street. He used to live near Taylor Yard.

Last week, Lizarde walked past a new soccer field at the park off San Fernando Road to the concrete bank of the river. A blue heron swooped by a path littered with foam plastic cups.

The soccer field is one part of the city's long-term effort to transform the area along the concrete-sided river that was once synonymous with crime and graffiti into a place residents can enjoy.

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan calls for improvements to water quality; providing the public with easy access to the river; building new trails for walking and biking; and providing open space and better habitats to support wildlife, among other goals. The city considers improving the river one of its top long-term priorities.

Joe Linton, author of the book "Down by the Los Angeles River" and the blog LACreekFreak, joined Lizarde at the river. "As we're starting to see a nicer river . . . we want to move toward removing barriers," he said.

Linton, who rides a bicycle almost everywhere he travels in Los Angeles, said he supports the high-speed rail but wants to be sure its route will not damage the progress that has been made along the river or prevent that effort from expanding.

Linton said he feels it's a clash of two well-praised ideals. On one hand, the high-speed rail aims to increase mobility and improve the environment by providing attractive options for commuters, but having the route run along the river, he said, would make it much more difficult to transform the river.

High-speed rail has been talked about in California for decades. In the late 1970s, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, now the state's attorney general, envisioned a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Diego. It was shot down in the early 1980s.

For many it was a pipe dream, too expensive and too large to come to fruition.

But it has been taken very seriously since voters approved the sale of $9.95 billion in bonds in 2008 and since President Obama pledged federal funds for transportation projects and talked about his vision for high-speed rail.

"Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America. Now all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future, it is now, it is happening right now, it's been happening for decades. The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here," Obama said during a news conference.

Spain, Italy, France and Germany have built high-speed rail

The total project in California would span some 800 miles and include a route from San Francisco to Los Angeles that would take a little more than 2 1/2 hours to travel. It has an estimated price tag of about $45 billion. Promoters say the rail project would be the nation's most ambitious since the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

One of the first phases, a high-speed corridor from Los Angeles to Anaheim, would cost about $4.4 billion and, depending on whether the project receives significant federal funding, construction could begin as early as 2011, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The rail authority and other transportation officials said the routes and planning are in elementary stages.

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