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Bullet train plan under fire from local officials

California's massive high-speed rail project could save up to $2 billion -- and hundreds of homes -- by expanding and sharing existing tracks through the L.A.-O.C. region, local transit leaders argue.

April 05, 2010|By Dan Weikel and Rich Connell

Transit executives from Los Angeles and Orange counties are pressing officials with the state's high-speed rail project to consider resurrecting a plan to share existing track between Anaheim and downtown L.A.'s Union Station.

The idea was considered and discarded by the California High-Speed Rail Authority in 2008, but key local leaders believe it could save up to $2 billion and avoid the need to condemn hundreds of homes and businesses. Bullet train officials have been pursuing the more costly and disruptive option of adding their own exclusive tracks and widening sections of the 34-mile route through the region's dense industrial and residential core. The existing corridor is used by Metrolink and Amtrak passenger trains as well as freight carriers.

The bid to revisit a simpler approach reflects growing concern about escalating costs, the effect on communities along the route and frustration with the state agency's planning process.

In unusually blunt language, Art Leahy, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, criticized the high-speed train project before a group of Southern California city and rail officials last month.

"We are big-time unhappy with the conduct of the high-speed authority," Leahy told officials who oversee the existingLos Angeles-to-San Diego train corridor.

"I really can't understand their approach," he said. "In many cases they've ridden roughshod over the host of cities in Orange County and in Los Angeles. They have ignored input and there are assumptions that are just astonishing."

Among other things, Leahy questioned designing the system to run trains every five minutes. "That's extraordinary," he said. And widening the corridor to add dedicated bullet train tracks could require taking out hundreds of homes in Anaheim alone, he noted. "I mean, just crazy stuff," he said, according to a recording of the session obtained by The Times.

If the planning does not become more rational, Leahy warned, "I don't think there is going to be a project."

In a March 23 letter to the bullet train authority, and in an interview with The Times last week, Leahy was more measured, stressing the need for better coordination between state and local officials and more integration with existing rail services. The letter was also signed by Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

High-speed rail officials said they have sought comment from communities over the years and note that some conflict over decisions is to be expected on such a massive project. They say they continue to welcome suggestions and will consider the local officials' request and a more formal joint planning partnership at their meeting this week.

A bullet train spokesman also noted that the shared-use option had been previously considered. "This obviously is something we studied for a long time," said Jeff Barker, the agency's deputy executive director. "At the time, it looked like we couldn't get enough train tracks in the corridor" for high-speed rail trains and all of the existing freight and passenger service.

How the Los Angeles-Anaheim segment unfolds in terms of public and political acceptance, as well as cost and passenger service, is important because it will be one of the first and most heavily used legs of an eventual 800-mile system stretching from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento. Projections place the cost of the Anaheim-to-San Francisco first phase at about $45 billion, although critics say that is likely to rise.

Trains would exceed 200 mph on some stretches, and planners say a trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco could take as little as two hours and 38 minutes. Trains in the Los Angeles-Anaheim corridor are likely to travel more slowly but still shave 15 to 20 minutes off a comparable commuter rail trip.

But as plans for expanding the corridor have advanced, and $2.25 billion in federal stimulus money has made the start of local construction likely in two years, the project has begun attracting intensified scrutiny.

"Now having gotten an idea of the project's impacts, it has given us some pause," Kempton said in an interview. "It makes sense to take another look."

Adding separate high-speed rail track and potentially needing to take hundreds of pieces of private property have helped double cost projections for the L.A.-Anaheim segment to about $4.5 billion.

The need for separate, dedicated tracks rests partly on ridership and train frequency assumptions, both of which are being increasingly questioned, even by some project supporters. Designing a system capable of running trains every few minutes is required by voter-approved state law, officials say. And Barker said his agency is confident of its ridership projections, noting that they are being reviewed by experts at UC Berkeley.

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