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Maglev, high-speed rail woo the Southern California region

(The Los Angeles Daily News posted the following article by Lisa Mascaro on its website on April 13.)

LOS ANGELES -- For as long as many commuters can remember, planners and politicians have dreamed of a fast train to whisk people across Southern California and points beyond.

Now, supporters of two multibillion-dollar, high-speed rail projects are wooing the region: The state's High-Speed Rail Authority wants to bring its San Francisco-to-San Diego line through Los Angeles, while the Southern California Association of Governments hopes for a magnetic-levitation system that would crisscross Southern California.

"What is happening in Southern California is our metro area is developing at such a rate and it's only a matter of a decade before Las Vegas and Phoenix truly are linked economically and socially with the rest of Southern California and we're going to need the capacity to move people," said SCAG Executive Director Mark Pisano.

"Now how they get built, how they get financed, that's really going to depend on if the public's willing to spend that much money or if we'll turn them into profitable businesses."

The California High-Speed Rail Authority will hold a public hearing today in Los Angeles on its draft environmental report. The $37 billion project calls for running electric trains at 200 mph between Northern and Southern California, connecting its major cities and airports.

The trains would carry an estimated 32 million passengers annually by 2020. For $59 one way, travelers could go between Los Angeles' Union Station and San Francisco in about three hours. A trip between Palmdale and downtown L.A. would take about a half-hour.

Key for San Fernando Valley-area commuters is whether the Bakersfield-to-Los Angeles route should follow the 5 Freeway corridor or swing around to Palmdale.

Northern Los Angeles County is expected to swell from 500,000 residents today to 1.1 million by 2030, according to SCAG. Also, two major housing projects are planned along the 5 Freeway -- the already approved Newhall Ranch and the proposed Centennial community at Tejon Ranch.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich supports both the SCAG maglev project as well as the prospect of bringing the state's high-speed train through Palmdale.

"Antelope Valley residents could be shuttled to downtown in 26 minutes, faster than the freeways and with less pollution," he said in a statement. "This would help free up the roadways and link important business centers in the Antelope Valley to spur economic development and create jobs."

While many train enthusiasts support the high-speed rail project, detractors worry the Palmdale route would encourage growth beyond the Newhall Ranch and Centennial projects.

"Those are small developments compared to what you do when you have a train that can get you to downtown L.A. in less than an hour," said Richard Tolmach, president of the nonprofit California Rail Foundation.

"If they were saying it's not a commuter line, they shouldn't have had a Palmdale alternative out there."

But the Rail Authority says high-speed rail wouldn't necessarily provide a workday option for commuters.

"We don't want to overpromise. It's not going to be a commuter service," said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the authority.

The project has a spot on the November ballot for a $9.9 billion bond to begin work, but various laws to postpone that measure are pending in Sacramento.

On Monday legislation by the Schwarzenegger administration to delay a public vote on the bond issue until 2008 was approved by the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Even supporters of high-speed rail agree that the vote should be delayed because the state's fiscal problems make passage unlikely this year.

As the California project undergoes the environmental review, SCAG continues to pursue efforts to build a high-speed maglev system linking Southern California's communities. The first leg would be a $5 billion, 55-mile route between West Los Angeles and Ontario Airport.

A separate maglev project by the 15-year-old California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission also proposes a route between Orange County and Las Vegas.

While the state project would be built with taxpayer funds, SCAG wants to have the maglev system built and operated privately.

But detractors want the money spent on what they see as more practical transit solutions, like expanding Metrolink and MTA subway lines.

Both the state and the SCAG projects support one another, hoping to connect riders of both systems.

"It depends what your goal is for the state. Their goal is to handle the inter-city, our goal is to handle the commuters within the region," said Pisano. "What's more important? The people will have to decide that."

Associated Press contributed to this story.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

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