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Bullet train over the Grapevine? Switch to 5 Freeway route in mountains considered

May 5, 2011 | 12:03 pm

California bullet train planners voted Thursday to revive a long-discarded route option following Interstate 5 over the Grapevine that could save billions of dollars and eliminate a sweeping dog-leg through Los Angeles County’s high-desert towns.

The sudden reversal comes after years of planning focused on a circuitous path south of Bakersfield crossing the Tehachapi Mountains to serve Palmdale and Lancaster. Reopening what had been considered a settled issue highlights a critical tension in the one of the nation's costliest transportation projects: As officials rush to start building, they still have not resolved an array of political, financing and engineering challenges.

Thursday's vote by the California High-Speed Rail Authority board ignited new political brush fires for an agency struggling to scrape together billions needed to complete the first 500-mile leg of the voter-approved system between the Bay Area and downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station. Resurrecting consideration of an Interstate 5 route “is a step backwards,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents Palmdale and pushed for that alignment when it was chosen several years ago. 

“The proposed action would jeopardize years worth of commitments to a high-speed rail connection for Antelope Valley residents.” The city manager of Palmdale called the change “absurd.” The Palmdale and I-5 routes now will be studied. 

The Grapevine has a number of potential benefits, state officials say. It is nearly 30 miles shorter, would cut travel time, reduce tunneling and save a minimum of $1 billion and perhaps more, they say.

Following I-5 also sidesteps newly recognized earthquake risks along the Antelope Valley route, and dodges rising opposition from homeowners who have moved to new developments along the Palmdale Highway in recent years. "There’s been a big hue and cry,” said Ruthann Levison, a Sand Canyon resident who says dozens of ranch-style homes could be in or near the path of trains running to Palmdale. The I-5 option spares her area. “We love it,” she said.

But, as bullet train promoters are painfully aware, curing one headache often begets another. Developers of a major new planned mountain community at Tejon Ranch, near I-5, warned the Grapevine option would disrupt project agreements and could end up costing the agency more to acquire rights of way.  

And officials in the auto-dependent bedroom community of Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, are concerned about possible construction disruption along the interstate corridor. “The 5 is our lifeblood,” said Gail Ortiz, the city’s communications manager. “We don’t want to see that lifeblood jeopardized for something that could be pie in the sky.” Some skeptics warn that the high cost and opposition to additional funding from congressional Republicans could derail the project before completion.

But some rail advocates said the direct I-5 route makes more sense and never should have been abandoned.

“Why go the long way?" said Richard Tolmach, director of the California Rail Foundation. “The I-5 option is not just good because it is cheaper and shorter, it also is good because it will permanently lower the cost of operations.”


Metro's record-setting budget heavy on L.A. rail projects

-- Rich Connell and Dan Weikel