High-speed Rail

Monday, Jan 09 2012 06:03 PM

Study supports Palmdale bullet train option over Grapevine

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Building high-speed rail over the Grapevine instead of through the Antelope Valley wouldn't necessarily save money after all, according to a staff report released Monday.

The conceptual study contradicts a preliminary finding last summer that the Grapevine option could save the state up to $4 billion. It concludes that the Antelope Valley remains the simplest, safest and overall best option for connecting Bakersfield with the Los Angeles Basin by 2030 using trains that can travel up to 220 mph.

Board members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority are scheduled to vote Thursday in Los Angeles on whether to shelve the Grapevine option.

In 2005 the rail authority rejected the Grapevine option, saying the mountain pass presented too many seismic risks and engineering hurdles. But in May the rail authority decided to revisit that assertion after construction complications and potential impacts to two lakes and the California Aqueduct surfaced near the proposed route through Palmdale.

The study released Monday compared the two options using various criteria, and concluded that the Antelope Valley alternative remains superior in terms of farmland impacts, population "connectivity" and total tunneling, among other measures. It noted that stakeholders including businesses and elected officials prefer the route through Palmdale.

As far as cost savings, the new report says crossing the Antelope Valley into Sylmar would cost $15 billion to $15.5 billion (up from a $6.5 billion estimate in 2005), as compared with a $15.1 billion "risk adjusted capital cost estimate" for the Grapevine route. In 2005, the Grapevine option was pegged at $6.6 billion.

The report's conclusion pleased Lebec-based Tejon Ranch Co., which opposed the Grapevine option because of the potential disruption to two of its real estate development projects near Interstate 5.

"Taking this uncertainty off the table is very, very important to our (Tejon) Mountain Village project and, frankly, all our projects along the I-5 corridor," said Joseph Drew, Tejon Ranch's senior vice president of real estate.

Project critic Elizabeth Alexis called the report's conclusions "surprising but not surprising in other ways."

"The hallmark of this project is that you never rethink an old decision," she said.

New bill would halt the project

Also Monday, Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, announced her introduction of a bill that would forbid the use of state bond sale proceeds to finance the project. If signed by the governor, the bill would essentially kill the project, approved by state voters in 2008.

Harkey's announcement follows an assessment released last week by a state-appointed peer review group that the project is not financially feasible.

Two local state lawmakers said they supported Harkey's move.

"The recent studies released have shown that the High Speed Rail Authority is headed down the wrong track," state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, said in a written statement. "The peer review group said the plan was not feasible and the latest business plan indicates a continuing escalation of cost that was not agreed upon by the voters. It is perhaps time to put the brakes on funding for the project until a more feasible plan materializes that is in line with what the voters supported in 2008."

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, agreed.

"This is the old 'bait and switch' -- the voters were misled by the Legislature who proposed this high speed rail initiative," she said in a written statement. "The costs have more than tripled, and no rail has been laid yet! I support Assemblywoman Harkey's bill, and have signed on as a co-author. Until the people of California are given another chance to vote on this project, I will continue to support withholding any further bond funding."

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