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Palmdale, Calif., to fund its own rail study

(The following story by Jim Skeen appeared on the Los Angeles Daily News website on April 18.)

PALMDALE, Calif. -- Palmdale will spend $200,000 for further analysis of environmental studies for a proposed statewide rail system in an effort to get it routed through the Antelope Valley.

Palmdale officials want further analysis of environmental documents that will be used in determining how the rail system runs between Bakersfield and Los Angeles -- through the Antelope Valley or up Interstate 5.

"We're going to dissect it," Mayor Jim Ledford said of the environmental study.

Palmdale officials have lined up consultants to help bolster their claims that an Antelope Valley route would serve the growing population, would not require tunneling and not raise as many environmental concerns as a rail line over the Grapevine.

Los Angeles County supervisors and Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn are among the officials who have backed the Palmdale route.

The project has a spot on the November ballot for a $9.9 billion bond issue to being the work, but various bills to postpone that measure are pending in Sacramento because the state's fiscal problems make passage unlikely this year.

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

Overseen by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the proposed rail project is estimated to cost between $33 billion and $37 billion, which means if it is built it would be the most expensive public works project in U.S. history.

Although the Antelope Valley route would be longer, adding six to nine minutes to the Bay Area-Los Angeles trip, it would serve 750,000 more residents than the Grapevine route, and generate greater ridership revenue, resulting in $900 million in net benefits over the first 33 years of operation, according to consultants for Palmdale.

"The route should follow where the people are," Ledford said. "We can improve the bottom line to pay for this."

Palmdale allocated $100,000 for consultant work in 2002, including the hiring of consultants to examine tunneling issues associated with the rail project, and the hiring last summer of noted environmental law firm Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard and Smith.

One of the consultants, Geodata, an Italian engineering firm, is arguing that a route through the Antelope Valley would be safer from earthquake hazards. The Grapevine route would run within a mile of the San Gabriel fault for over 20 miles, greatly increasing tunneling costs and the likelihood of construction accidents and delay, according to Robert Schaevitz, who worked on the tunneling study.

"The I-5 route is truly an accident waiting to happen," Schaevitz said in testimony before the rail authority last week. "Given how often earthquakes occur in this region, it is difficult to comprehend why the authority would even consider this route."

The state study has found no reason to drop the Grapevine route from consideration because of seismic concerns, rail authority executive director Mehdi Morshed said.

Morshed said the authority is waiting to examine the Palmdale consultants' work to see if they have something new.

"The fact that the fault is there has not been ignored," Morshed said. "We recognize the risk of tunneling. There are uncertainties of going through rocks, but there are uncertainties of going through cities and getting property from people."

The proposed Antelope Valley alignment would follow Highway 58 from Bakersfield to Mojave, then would run south along the Union Pacific railroad tracks through Lancaster, Palmdale and Soledad Canyon.

At the southern end of the Antelope Valley, the route would follow Soledad Canyon Road instead of the Antelope Valley Freeway.

The public comment period for the environmental study was to end May 15, but state officials have decided to extend it through August.

The rail authority hopes to finalize the study late this year -- provided there is money to complete the work. The authority had requested $720,000 to complete the study, but was turned down by the state Finance Department, said Morshed, the authority's executive director.

"There is a strong possibility we will not have the money to finish it," Morshed said.

The authority is looking to see if federal aid is available for the work, Morshed said.

In a separate rail issue, Palmdale will join 12 cities represented in the Orange Line Development Authority, which is working to establish maglev trains through Orange and Los Angeles counties, including a segment linking Palmdale and Los Angeles.

The Orange Line Development Authority is conducting initial studies of possible alignments for the northern Los Angeles County portion of the maglev line, all of which include Palmdale. Preliminary cost estimates range from $8.2 million for a route that goes to Los Angeles International Airport to $11.9 million for a route that goes through Union Station downtown before continuing to LAX.

The next step for the Palmdale-to-Los Angeles segment will be the completion of preliminary engineering and environmental studies.

Other cities in the authority are Vernon, Maywood, Huntington Park, Bell, South Gate, Downey, Paramount, Bellflower, Cerritos and Artesia.

Monday, April 19, 2004

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