Hundreds of angry residents of Acton, Agua Dulce, Sylmar, Santa Clarita, Shadow Hills, San Fernando and Pacoima made a show of force Tuesday at a downtown L.A. meeting of the California High Speed Rail Authority, with most of them protesting potential routes the train will take in Southern California.
Construction of California's bullet train, the first of its kind in the United States, is under way in Fresno, well to the north of L.A. In theory, it will be completed by 2029, and run from L.A. to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes. In theory.
How much will this beast cost? No one knows. How will we pay for it? That's a little unclear right now. What route will it take? That's what a crowd of about 500 people were shouting about on Tuesday, spilling outside the Ronald Reagan State Office Building and onto the street.
Right now, the most disputed section in Southern California runs between Burbank and Palmdale. There's a very large mountain range, the San Gabriels, in the way, as well as the Angeles National Forest and, as protesters on Tuesday noted, a whole lot of drinkable water.
The authority is studying four route options. The first would run along roughly the same route as the Antelope Valley Metrolink commuter train, taking the bullet train through working-class Pacoima (a part of Los Angeles), splitting in two the city of San Fernando, then running through rural Sylmar (also within L.A.) and suburban Santa Clarita, L.A. County's third-largest city. It then would turn sharply through the small country town of Acton and head north to Palmdale.
Pretty much everyone who showed up from any of those towns was upset that this route was an option. Except officials in economically struggling Palmdale. They loved it.
The other three options involve tunneling under the San Gabriel Mountains. Environmentalists hate this idea, but so do people living in the San Gabriel foothills, in towns like Shadow Hills. The foothills are pretty much the final surviving rural way of life in Los Angeles. People there raise horses, and the idea of a massive 220 mph train regularly running through their wilderness is not a happy one.
Californians voted in 2008 to build the high-speed rail line, approving Proposition 1A by a modest margin.
"I don't think the amount of displacement that this is going to cause was something people were considering when they voted for it," says Kelly Rose, a resident of Shadow Hills. She and her family moved there from Echo Park so that they could live in a middle-class rural setting but work in L.A.
Two of the proposed routes would see the train speed past — within sight of her home.
"We all have horses," she says. "They're prey animals, so they're sensitive to the vibrations."
Dan Richard, the somber chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, was quick to point out that today's meeting was designed to hear public input, and that no decision would be made for years.
"Our goal is, in a year, to issue a draft Environmental Impact Report," he told reporters before the meeting. That EIR will suggest a preferred route, and another year or so of study will be required before construction begins. "This is a milepost in the process where the public has the ability to come in and offer their thoughts. And we’re here to listen to them," Richard said.
The proposed route through the heavily Latino town of San Fernando drew a particularly high level of vitriol, since the train would run above ground and would physically split the city in two, with high sound walls on either side of the tracks.
"Everyone knows they would never consider these routes through Old Town Pasadena," said San Fernando Mayor Joel Fajardo. "Yet it's OK to decimate our neighborhoods and our way of life."
He and other city officials claim that the route would displace businesses and financially cripple a city still reeling from the Great Recession.
"We were on the brink of bankruptcy two short years ago," said San Fernando city manager Brian Saeki. Running the train through San Fernando "would put us back in a position we were two years ago. Quite frankly, I don't know if we could recover from that."
At least 30 of the protestors were from the small town of Acton, located about an hour's drive north of L.A. on the other side of the San Gabriels. All four proposed routes run through Acton — at ground level.
One of Acton's 7,500 residents is actress Tippi Hedren, famous for playing the anguished blonde in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. The proposed rail line has her similarly distressed. Hedren runs the Shambala Preserve, an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary, in Acton.
"It's going to absolutely kill that town," she told the rail authority officials. "You don't listen, you don't care."
"Now I know how the Sioux Nation felt when the Union Pacific Railroad destroyed their homes," said one Acton resident, Jacqueline English. (To which one man in the audience exclaimed, "Wow. She went there.")
Another Acton resident, who didn't identify herself to the board, said: "You don't like the fact that we live with horses. You want to citify us."
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Not all cities oppose the bullet train. Anaheim likes it, Burbank likes it and Palmdale loves it since it will make it far easier to live in that inexpensive high-desert town while commuting to a job in Los Angeles. And the project will provide construction jobs.
"We believe it's Southern California's answer for a need for jobs," said Palmdale Mayor James Ledford.
Richard pointed out that all major infrastructure projects face resistance.
"The Golden Gate Bridge had 2,300 lawsuits brought against it," he told reporters. "The Golden Gate Bridge. Today, people look at it and say, 'My God, this is one of the wonders of the world.' It’s not to say that some people weren’t displaced or unhappy about it. But in the end, there was a public good that came out of it. What we’re building here, by the way, in high-speed rail, is the most efficient way to deal with our transportation needs of the future."