What an Unholy Mess This California Bullet Train Meeting Is Going to Be

What an Unholy Mess This California Bullet Train Meeting Is Going to Be
A Japanese bullet train via Doug Bowman/Flickr

All those who enjoy seeing angry people yelling at government officials are invited to the California High Speed Rail Authority's board meeting in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday. The board will be discussing a few things, but the bone of contention will be the bullet train's route between Burbank and Palmdale, which will either tear through the cities of San Fernando, Pacoima and Sylmar, or tunnel under the Angeles National Forest. 

First, some background:

In 2008, California voters approved a ballot measure to authorize $9.95 billion in bonds to fund construction of the country's first bullet train. It would, the ballot measure promised, whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes.

If the authorities pulled this thing off, it would be the most expensive public works program in the history of the United States. 

Construction got off to a late start, but it finally broke ground in January, in beautiful Fresno. The California High Speed Rail Authority (or CHSRA) hopes to have the L.A.-to–San Fran section completed by 2029. The authority claims, to much doubt, that the bullet train will reach a top speed of 220 miles per hour (America's current fastest train tops out at around 150 mph). It will cost at least $68 billion, probably more – a lot can happen in 14 years.

Aside from the $9.95 billion in bond money and $3.3 billion that California got in stimulus money from the federal government, no one really has any idea where the rest of the $68 billion (or however much) is coming from.

There are myriad problems with this gargantuan endeavor, not least of which is that farmers in the San Joaquin Valley don't want to sell their land to the government, so the state is using eminent-domain law to essentially force the farmers to sell.

And then there are arguments in each community over the specific routes the train will take. 

The bullet train is supposed to leave Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, head up to Burbank and then pop over to Palmdale. This is sort of a pain in the ass because (a) what the hell's in Palmdale?; (b) it's out of the way; (c) it means that the rail can't efficiently hug the 5 freeway as initially planned; and (d) there's a giant mountain range between Burbank and Palmdale.

So the CHSRA is now floating four options, which it's presenting to the communities and mulling over. One of the options is to cut through the tiny city of San Fernando, along the same route as the Metrolink commuter train. 

What an Unholy Mess This California Bullet Train Meeting Is Going to Be

San Fernando hates this idea. Residents and elected officials of the historic old town say the construction will shut down businesses and chop the place up.

"It’s the worst imaginable plan," says Mayor Pro Tem Sylvia Ballin. "It will more than likely bankrupt our city."

San Fernando has long since been divided by train tracks. The worry is that while there are four points at which to cross the tracks right now, there will be only two once the bullet train is built. Even worse, CHSRA will have to put up huge sound walls, which will give the city a real Berlin Wall vibe. 

"It's going to kill the town," says resident Julian Ruelas. "It's gonna cause this crazy mixed-up traffic flow. It's gonna take out a swath of businesses. It’s a bad thing. The city was born by the railroad. They’re gonna kill it by the railroad."

The other three options all involve tunneling under the Angeles National Forest. Environmentalists, equestrians and other activists hate this idea. Even though the train would run underground, there will have to be multiple access points, both for maintenance and in case of emergency. That would presumably mean little potholes interspersed through the forest, kind of like in Lost.

Even worse, running the train through the Angeles National Forest would, according to environmental activist Kristin Sabo, endanger the region's water supply, since it would cut through the San Fernando Groundwater Basin, one of the few sources of water DWP owns and therefore doesn't have to buy. 

"The tunnel projects will de-water and pollute the basin," says Sabo.

So why isn't tunneling under the city of San Fernando an option? Because San Fernando is out of the way. If you're gonna go to the trouble of digging an incredibly long tunnel, may as well do it in a straight-ish line.

"If you are going to build a tunnel and want to connect Burbank and Palmdale, you don’t need to go in that direction," says Michelle Boehm, the Southern California regional director of CHSRA.

She also says that each of the four options will cost roughly the same amount of money — add a tunnel to San Fernando, and costs go up. 

Anyway, to make a long story even longer: Everyone is pissed, and there's not really any plan on the table that will make most of them happy.

"I think no option is the best option," says Ballin. "It’s just unimaginable to me that our elected officials would go forward with a train that is going to cost billions more than we approved. This is not the same plan" that voters approved in 2008.


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