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Rail officials now on a different track

(The Orange County Register posted the following article by Susan Gill Vardon on its website on April 2.)

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Train tunnels under the San Diego (I-5) Freeway would be better than a second set of railroad tracks along San Clemente beaches and through San Juan Capistrano's historic downtown, rail officials now say.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority wants to drop the double-track idea - which has generated widespread opposition from residents and city officials - in favor of a plan to tunnel hundreds of feet under the freeway in south Orange County.

"Some of these solutions are more costly," said Medhi Morshed, executive director of the rail authority, which has embarked on a project to improve its Los Angeles-to-San Diego line. "But I don't have a tool to put the cost on preserving the beach. It's a national, state and local resource."

The tunnel recommendations will be presented at a public workshop at 6:30 tonight at the San Clemente Community Center, 100 N. Calle Seville.

And on May 27, the High-Speed Rail Authority board will meet at Irvine City Hall to vote on the proposals.

The twin-bore design proposed for three of the I-5 tunnels is safe and would be far enough under ground that construction would not affect freeway traffic, said Dan Leavitt, deputy director for the rail authority. Similar projects have been done in the Bay area, he said.

"You would have two tunnels, side by side, a couple hundred feet under the ground," Leavitt said. "And it's not disrupting to the freeway when it's built."

For the past year, community leaders and residents in San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano have banded together to fight the double-track plans.

Many were cautiously optimistic about Morshed's new recommendations.

"I applaud him for taking such a bold move, and the right move for rail and the natural resources our community enjoys," said John Dorey, a San Clemente resident and president of the Derail the Rail group.

Dorey and others had argued that a second track would reduce beach access, damage fragile bluffs and even create a safety hazard. In San Juan, the concern was preserving the rich history that lines the tracks.

Officials at the rail authority and the California Department of Transportation say the use of the inland tunnels would preserve the beaches and the historic district.

Four tunnels are proposed. They would include tracks for use by Amtrak, Metrolink, Coaster, and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.

The first is a "short tunnel," which would be about 6 miles long and cost from $700 million to $1 billion. This option would take the tracks off San Clemente beaches, officials say.

The second is a "long split tunnel," two separate tunnels about 5 miles long. This option would cost about $300 million more than the short tunnel, and would take tracks off San Clemente and Dana Point beaches, officials said.

The fourth tunnel would be about a mile long, cost about $500 million and bypass downtown San Juan Capistrano.

But another, less costly option in San Juan Capistrano is to move the rail alignment from downtown to near Trabuco Creek, officials say. That would cost about $100 million.

The new south Orange County rail lines could eventually serve as a feeder to a proposed $25 billion high-speed electric rail project linking San Francisco to San Diego, officials said.

Voters will decide in November 2004 whether to approve a $9.5 billion bond for the first phase of the high-speed rail project. Revenues from the line would pay for the rest of the project, officials say.

Residents say they are intrigued by the tunnels but would like a little more information.

"It sounds good," said Bob Becker, 64, of Dana Point. "But what kind of problems could that cause? I don't think any of us have a clue."

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

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