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High speed rail plan under fire from L.A. officials

(The following story by Dan Weikel and Rich Connell appeared on the Los Angeles Times website on April 5, 2010.)

LOS ANGELES — Transit executives from Los Angeles and Orange counties are pressing officials with the state's high-speed rail project to consider resurrecting a plan to share existing track between Anaheim and downtown L.A.'s Union Station.

The idea was considered and discarded by the California High-Speed Rail Authority in 2008, but key local leaders believe it could save up to $2 billion and avoid the need to condemn hundreds of homes and businesses. Bullet train officials have been pursuing the more costly and disruptive option of adding their own exclusive tracks and widening sections of the 34-mile route through the region's dense industrial and residential core. The existing corridor is used by Metrolink and Amtrak passenger trains as well as freight carriers.

The bid to revisit a simpler approach reflects growing concern about escalating costs, the effect on communities along the route and frustration with the state agency's planning process.

In unusually blunt language, Art Leahy, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, criticized the high-speed train project before a group of Southern California city and rail officials last month.

"We are big-time unhappy with the conduct of the high-speed authority," Leahy told officials who oversee the existingLos Angeles-to-San Diego train corridor.

"I really can't understand their approach," he said. "In many cases they've ridden roughshod over the host of cities in Orange County and in Los Angeles. They have ignored input and there are assumptions that are just astonishing."

Among other things, Leahy questioned designing the system to run trains every five minutes. "That's extraordinary," he said. And widening the corridor to add dedicated bullet train tracks could require taking out hundreds of homes in Anaheim alone, he noted. "I mean, just crazy stuff," he said, according to a recording of the session obtained by The Times.

If the planning does not become more rational, Leahy warned, "I don't think there is going to be a project."

In a March 23 letter to the bullet train authority, and in an interview with The Times last week, Leahy was more measured, stressing the need for better coordination between state and local officials and more integration with existing rail services. The letter was also signed by Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

High-speed rail officials said they have sought comment from communities over the years and note that some conflict over decisions is to be expected on such a massive project. They say they continue to welcome suggestions and will consider the local officials' request and a more formal joint planning partnership at their meeting this week.

A bullet train spokesman also noted that the shared-use option had been previously considered. "This obviously is something we studied for a long time," said Jeff Barker, the agency's deputy executive director. "At the time, it looked like we couldn't get enough train tracks in the corridor" for high-speed rail trains and all of the existing freight and passenger service.

How the Los Angeles-Anaheim segment unfolds in terms of public and political acceptance, as well as cost and passenger service, is important because it will be one of the first and most heavily used legs of an eventual 800-mile system stretching from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento. Projections place the cost of the Anaheim-to-San Francisco first phase at about $45 billion, although critics say that is likely to rise.

Trains would exceed 200 mph on some stretches, and planners say a trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco could take as little as two hours and 38 minutes. Trains in the Los Angeles-Anaheim corridor are likely to travel more slowly but still shave 15 to 20 minutes off a comparable commuter rail trip.

But as plans for expanding the corridor have advanced, and $2.25 billion in federal stimulus money has made the start of local construction likely in two years, the project has begun attracting intensified scrutiny.

"Now having gotten an idea of the project's impacts, it has given us some pause," Kempton said in an interview. "It makes sense to take another look."

Adding separate high-speed rail track and potentially needing to take hundreds of pieces of private property have helped double cost projections for the L.A.-Anaheim segment to about $4.5 billion.

The need for separate, dedicated tracks rests partly on ridership and train frequency assumptions, both of which are being increasingly questioned, even by some project supporters. Designing a system capable of running trains every few minutes is required by voter-approved state law, officials say. And Barker said his agency is confident of its ridership projections, noting that they are being reviewed by experts at UC Berkeley.

Some critics worry that the L.A.-Anaheim segment will duplicate existing Metrolink and Amtrak service, both of which have the potential to go 110 mph if improvements are made.

It "isn't practical," to start with that segment said Michael McGinley, who previously headed Metrolink's engineering department and has worked on the local high-speed rail project as a consultant. "The first $4 billion should not be spent on that little spur. It overlaps and competes with an existing service."

Richard Katz, an influential Los Angeles transportation official who recently joined the high-speed rail board, is among those pressing less costly design models. "You've got to be realistic and take a hard look at what the demand is" between Los Angeles and Anaheim, said Katz, a former state Assembly leader who also sits on the MTA and Metrolink boards.

Up to $2 billion might be trimmed from the local segment's costs by improving and sharing existing track wherever possible, Katz and Kempton said.

Leahy, who sees great potential benefit in the bullet train project, said he is confident that high-speed rail and other services could operate safely on shared track.

The current bullet train plans would cause severe problems for seven cities, said Richard R. Powers of the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, a coalition of Los Angeles-area municipalities. He complained that the group's concerns have been largely ignored since 2004. A formal cooperation agreement was reached only recently, he said. "Now we have a constructive dialogue that we should have had years ago."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

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