Finding a route into the Los Angeles Basin for the California bullet train is proving far more difficult than it seemed a year ago, as opposition is surging in wealthy and working-class communities alike.
The depth of opposition became more apparent Thursday evening when protesters in the city of San Fernando took over an open house meeting held by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. They demanded that state officials answer questions about the project's impact on their community.
But unlike typical protests, this one was led by elected officials. Seventy people, headed by the city's mayor pro tem and other current and former city officials, marched into a city auditorium and set up their own public address system.
With their Police Department on hand, they confronted state officials with anger that has not been seen even in the virulent opposition to the project in Northern California or the Central Valley.
"The bottom line is you are not really welcome," Mayor Pro Tem Sylvia Ballin told state officials, whose plans call for bisecting the small working-class city with high sound walls that the city fears will become an eyesore and magnet for graffiti.
"We will lose in the city $1.3 million annually as a result of your brilliant planning," she said, referring to projected losses of tax revenue when businesses shut down. "We are here to tell you we will not accept it quietly, not one bit."
Voters approved a $9-billion bond for the rail project in 2008, launching a program that is supposed to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco by train in two hours and 40 minutes. Major construction activity is supposed to start this summer, about 21/2 years behind the date set in early 2012.
The state has a record of underestimating opposition to the project, starting in the Bay Area, where wealthy communities in the Silicon Valley forced the proposed train to share existing tracks with commuter rail into San Francisco and accept speed limits of half the projected level.
Farmers in the Central Valley delayed the project with lawsuits and refused to sell their fields at prices they considered low. Now, finding a way for the train to pass into the nation's second-largest city is proving difficult and time-consuming.
Stunned state officials stood stone-faced at the protest, refusing to answer questions that Ballin and other city officials and residents asked.
"The route would destroy this community, splitting it north to south," City Manager Brian Saeki said in an interview.
Opposition has also steadily mounted in Pacoima, Sylmar, Santa Clarita and Los Angeles neighborhoods over the original route, which would bring the rail line from Palmdale to Burbank Bob Hope Airport via an alignment following California 14 and the 5 Freeway. The communities have been riven in the past by the 5, 118 and 210 freeways.
A variation that would take the train through tunnels bored under the Angeles National Forest is also drawing strong opposition from residents of Los Angeles and unincorporated county regions, who say it would disrupt their affluent equestrian communities, interfere with private water wells and become an eyesore.
"The cumulative impacts are impossible to ignore," David DiPinto, a board member of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Assn., said in an interview.
Earlier this year, more than 2,000 people attended a rally that DiPinto helped organize that became one of the largest protests ever held against the rail project.
Rail Authority Communications Director Robert Magnuson said after Thursday's protest that the rail authority remained committed to working with the communities to find the most favorable route.
Protesters said they would not accept the state's way of conducting meetings on the project, which includes refusing to allow residents to ask questions during an open forum.
"We say no," San Fernando Councilman Jaime Soto told state officials from his microphone. "This is not your regular meeting. You are a guest here."
An authority board meeting set for June 9 in downtown Los Angeles is expected to draw hundreds of protesters. They are objecting to a 90-second time limit that they say the authority is setting for each speaker.
The rail authority has proposed skirting some opposition by considering three alternate routes. They would involve building more than 20 miles of tunnels from Burbank to Palmdale — one of the most ambitious tunneling projects in the world.
Michelle Boehm, the Southern California section director of the project, said the state has not yet decided whether to have a single tunnel, dual tunnels or even three tunnels for those possible routes. It must plan a system that would allow passengers to escape the deep chambers in the case of a fire or other emergency.
In an interview a day before the protest, Boehm said the rail authority was studying a range of options.
"The process is about coming up with the best route," she said. "We have a very active community outreach program. It is a case of going foot by foot and mile by mile to hear community input."
Boehm said the state would select a route over the next 12 to 18 months and issue a final environmental report in two years.
In addition to the route along California 14 and the 5 Freeway, the three alternatives would go directly under the San Gabriel Mountains. They would depart Burbank Airport below grade and run largely underground for 20 miles, passing 60 feet under the 5 Freeway. They would continue under the mountains, in some cases thousands of feet below the soaring peaks, before surfacing near Palmdale.
The routes would cross through the San Fernando complex of earthquake faults, using "fault chamber" technology designed to protect trains and passengers during seismic events. Near Palmdale, all the routes would cross the San Andreas fault above ground.
Beyond those challenges, the route would have to contend with springs, wetland, streams, abandoned mines and critical habitats.