With the bullet train project facing titanic legal battles in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Valley, the last thing the state rail authority needs is a route into Southern California that would galvanize new opposition.
But whether it can avoid such a fight remains uncertain after the California High Speed Rail Authority’s first public briefing Monday about its newly revealed route between Palmdale and Burbank.
A throng of 300 somewhat skeptical San Fernando Valley residents and several dozen protesters peppered rail staff at a meeting in Sun Valley with questions about seismic faults, wildlife crossings, ground vibrations, air emissions, truck traffic and myriad other potential effects of the route through the San Gabriel Mountains and residential communities.
The meeting came the night before the rail authority said that Chief Executive Brian Kelly is out on an extended leave of absence for an undisclosed health problem.
Kelly, who started in February after the agency went eight months without a chief executive, is a highly regarded political and administrative veteran in California. He was selected by Gov. Jerry Brown, in his final year in office, to restore the project’s credibility after years of delays and cost overruns. Kelly thought he had a stomach virus last week and had postponed meetings but was later hospitalized, according to an announcement to rail authority employees.
Kelly’s duties will be taken over for the time being by Joseph Hedges, the chief operating officer for the project who was brought in from Washington state’s highway department in January, and Pamela Mizukami, a chief deputy who was transferred this year from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The rail authority disclosed last week that its preferred route between Palmdale and Burbank is a modified version of its original plan to follow the 14 Freeway. The 38.6-mile route that the rail staff favors has more miles underground — 25.2 in total — than other options, though it is supposed to be the easiest, fastest and least risky choice.
The rail authority told the crowd the route would have six tunnels varying in length from half a mile to 12.4 miles. The spoils, or crushed rock taken out of the mountain, would amount to nearly 7 million cubic yards — enough to fill the Rose Bowl as many as 10 times, according to The Times’ calculations. Rail engineers said they have found old quarries that can take all the material, helping restore the sites.
The route would cut through some residential areas of Palmdale, though how many homes would have to be taken is not yet known. It would skirt around Palmdale Lake and enter its first tunnel. It would cross the Santa Clara River on a bridge near Lang Station Road.
The route would pass under Santa Clarita and bypass Shadow Hills and Lake View Terrace, which were all major opponents of the prior options. It would surface in the San Fernando Valley around Montague Street just northeast of San Fernando Road, where it would plow through a junkyard, into some industrial buildings and across a spreading grounds for the county’s flood control system.
Michelle Boehm, the rail authority’s Southern California section director, said the goal is to avoid any taking of residences. In an earlier interview, Boehm said the authority is concerned both about the housing crisis and the need to protect jobs, but believes it can more easily locate businesses than housing.
Around Sheldon Street, it would begin paralleling the Metrolink tracks. The right of way, which was originally granted to the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 19th century, is wide enough for two bullet train tracks, the existing single Metrolink track and one future expansion track for Metrolink, she said. But it could involve the taking of some property in some areas, she said.
The bullet train would enter a final tunnel, which was just decided on in the last week, as it enters the future underground Burbank station. The station would be close to the future Burbank airport terminal planned to replace the existing one.
Despite the plans, many attending the Monday night briefing were not convinced about the route or the entire project.
Nani Barnes, who runs the Lake View Farm horse ranch, said she didn’t hear anything in the presentation that altered her opposition to the project.