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Cities in bullet train's path have mixed reactions

Palmdale welcomes the new line, but some communities are taking a wait-and-see approach. Others are antagonistic. Next year the rail authority will begin the legal process of defining the route between Bakersfield and downtown L.A.

November 27, 2012|By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
  • Bob Childress, pastor of Church of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, worries that the proposed bullet train will go right through his church. "This will be an excellent test of our faith.”
Bob Childress, pastor of Church of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, worries… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

A few hundred faithful pass through the doors of Pastor Bob Childress' sanctuary every Sunday, but he worries that sometime in the next decade a 220-mph bullet train may take their place.

The future route of the train, as currently drawn, takes dead aim for the Church of the Canyons, an evangelical refuge on Sand Canyon Road in Santa Clarita with a congregation of 450.

"This will be an excellent test of our faith," Childress said.

California's bullet train has generated plenty of opposition in the areas around the San Gabriel Mountains. Elsewhere in Southern California, though, local governments are either embracing the train or choosing to remain neutral.

"It's out there in possibility land," San Fernando City Manager Al Hernandez said, noting there is little buzz about the project in his community, even though it may get one of the few passenger stations in the region.

Some officials in Santa Clarita, Burbank, Palmdale, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County have asked the California High-Speed Rail Authority to consider alternative routes, but no city has expressed serious opposition. In fact, Palmdale officials threatened to sue the rail authority if the bullet train did not go through their city.

When rail agency officials met privately with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa about 11 months ago, they were prepared for him to demand concessions to fund local transit in exchange for his support. But he stunned senior rail officials by telling them to "just do what's right for the project and I will support you," according to officials at City Hall.

Groups opposing the project say sentiment may change after upcoming environmental studies detail all of the homes, schools, businesses and other locations that could be affected. Next year, the rail authority will issue two key environmental reports that will begin the legal process of defining the exact route between Bakersfield and downtown Los Angeles.

"Just wait until they understand what it is going to do to them," said Elizabeth Allen, a co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Development, a Bay Area group that has sharply criticized the project.

It wasn't until detailed environmental reports were released in the Central Valley that agriculture interests helped fund a lawsuit to stop construction. About two years ago, Democratic leaders in the Bay Area began exerting pressure on the rail agency to abandon building elevated tracks through wealthy Silicon Valley cities and instead use existing commuter rail tracks.

The Bay Area eventually won that demand for a "blended system," which will sharply curtail speeds to about 110 mph or less from San Jose to San Francisco, and limit the number of peak-hour bullet trains that can operate. Essentially, true bullet train service will end at San Jose.

There are no such speed limits planned in L.A. County, but Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich would like to see one.

Antonovich, whose district covers miles of the route from Palmdale to the San Fernando Valley, wants the bullet trains to use existing Metrolink tracks and limit speeds to 110 mph.

"This has to be realistic, and in these urban areas you can't have 220-mph trains with safety and community support," said Antonovich, who is also chairman of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "They are completely misinformed."

But at slower speeds the bullet train project might fail to meet the mandates of a 2008 bond measure, which required that trips from L.A. to San Francisco take no longer than 2 hours and 40 minutes. So far, the rail authority shows no sign of adopting Antonovich's proposal and is moving ahead to solidify the plan for full-speed operations in L.A. County.

In Burbank, meanwhile, city officials are "cautiously neutral" about the bullet train, said David Kriske, the deputy planner for transportation.

Burbank is proposing that the rail authority build a station near Bob Hope Airport, aiming to link the airport to the region's future surface transportation system. If that proposal goes through, it will mean the existing 100-foot-wide rail right of way will have to be expanded significantly to accommodate the station.

"There is the idea that this isn't a real project," he added.

The rail authority, however, is moving ahead. Northbound bullet trains would stay on the existing right of way used by Metrolink until they reach Santa Clarita. That right of way in some places isn't big enough to accommodate two additional bullet train tracks and the existing Metrolink track.

As a result, there will have to be acquisitions of property, though it is unclear where those will occur, said Don Sepulveda, executive officer for regional rail at Metro.

"We are trying to design the route so it doesn't create a huge community debacle," he said.

So far, Santa Clarita is not officially opposed to the project, said Michael Murphy, the intergovernmental relations officer.

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