In a strategic shift to secure new funding for California's bullet train project, state officials intend to accelerate their plans to build a Los Angeles County section of the $68-billion system.
High-speed rail officials said they want to start a segment between Burbank and Palmdale in the next several years as they continue working on a 130-mile stretch of the line in the Central Valley. The revised approach could be formally adopted by the rail board as early as next month.
The move addresses a central political challenge faced by the project: criticism over starting construction in the rural Central Valley and delaying benefits for Southern California and Bay Area urban areas for more than a decade.
Opponents and some supporters have attacked the Central Valley plan as a "train to nowhere," even though the region is growing quickly. High-speed train service in northern Los Angeles County could help relieve traffic congestion in a key corridor. A Palmdale to Burbank bullet train trip could take 14 minutes to 16 minutes. By contrast, existing Metrolink rail service follows a winding route built in the 1870s and takes 90 minutes — which still can be faster than driving in rush hour.
"It is a huge game-changer," said Richard Katz, a former state Assembly leader and current member of the Metrolink board. "The visibility will make it real and people can see where their tax dollars are being spent."
Voters approved a $9-billion bond measure in 2008 and the Obama administration has provided grants of $3.2 billion, but that is a fraction of the construction cost for the Los Angeles to San Francisco line. Last month, as part of a new state budget, the Legislature provided about $250 million this fiscal year for the project from fees that companies pay for producing greenhouse gases, as well as 25% of future income from the levy.
Although that could still fall short of the money required to complete the project on schedule, it has put the endeavor on stronger financial footing.
But significant uncertainties remain. They include the state's ability to secure all of the additional construction funding, avoid costly construction delays, weather a growing number of legal challenges and operate the line without taxpayer subsidies.
Starting construction in Southern California requires a significant number of government actions, including selecting an exact route, completing environmental reviews and a massive amount of technical and design work, and choosing a contractor.
Unlike the flat Central Valley, where the state hopes to begin heavy construction this summer, the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles will be a world-class engineering challenge, involving extremely rugged terrain and a seismically active area that includes the San Andreas fault. Preliminary plans for the Los Angeles County section include tunnels up to eight miles long.
The rail authority has focused on a roughly 40-mile route following the Antelope Valley Freeway, which goes over Soledad Pass at an elevation of 3,225 feet. But Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes most of the area, has asked the rail agency to consider a direct route from Burbank to Palmdale under the mountain range, requiring a tunnel about 15 miles long, according to his staff. The authority has agreed to consider the request.
Bullet train planners always expected to place a station in the San Fernando Valley, and Burbank was the most likely choice. Ultimately, the bullet train track would connect Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to the Transbay Terminal transportation hub in central San Francisco. But by stopping construction in Burbank, at least initially, the authority would postpone the more difficult political and engineering task of reaching the heart of Los Angeles.
The authority estimates the cost of building the section from Palmdale to Los Angeles' Union Station at $13.5 billion. So far, it does not have an estimate for the Palmdale to Burbank section.
The rail project has encountered stiff opposition from some groups in the Central Valley and Silicon Valley, triggering lawsuits and political compromises on the design of the system. By contrast, there has been little organized opposition in Southern California. No major city has attempted to block or significantly modify the plan. Indeed, Palmdale threatened to sue the state if the project did not include a stop in the city. Los Angeles officials say that the project is yielding a number of benefits for other rail services, including more grade separations and improvements at Union Station.
The new building strategy was outlined in a June letter written by Jeff Morales, chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, to state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), during state budget negotiations. Morales said his agency's board of directors would be requested to formally adopt the revised approach once the Legislature agreed to allocate a portion of greenhouse gas fees to the bullet train. That action was taken last month.
Morales said in a statement Monday that the new long-term funding has provided "opportunities to accelerate the high-speed rail program and connect California from north to south and south to north."
"It means we can bring benefits to Southern California sooner, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gases faster and creating overall cost savings," he said.
In the earlier letter to Pavley, Morales had written that the Burbank to Palmdale section could be "an operating segment on its own." That is an important legal distinction because voter-approved bond funding can be spent only on operable segments where all of the needed funds have been identified before construction work begins. The newly committed funding could be used to match billions in bond funding over time, and help pay for the Los Angeles section.
The commitment to accelerate construction in Los Angeles County came in response to concerns raised by Senate Democrats who supported the bullet train, but had quietly voiced concerns about the current approach, according to legislative staffers.
In return for agreeing to the new long-term source of funding, the Democrats wanted to secure more immediate benefits for commuters and quicker reductions in greenhouse gases, which a Los Angeles bullet train segment could provide, according to legislative staff members. State law requires that greenhouse gas fees be allocated to projects that can reduce emissions by the largest margins in the shortest time.
Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), the newly elected leader of the upper house, was a key force in speeding up bullet train construction in Los Angeles County. He had been critical of beginning the project in the Central Valley. "It's egregious," he said in a recent interview. "It's locomotive malpractice."
Pavley and De León had been pushing for more spending in the Bay Area and Southern California to improve regional rail systems. In the end, Pavley wasn't satisfied with the rail authority's new approach, and did not cast a vote for the cap and trade funding plan for the bullet train.