The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to take a first step toward purchase of a little-used 14-mile railroad right of way that is one of two routes under consideration for a San Fernando Valley mass transit line.
Despite strenuous objections from leaders of homeowner organizations along the route, the commission authorized hiring an appraiser to determine the value of the Southern Pacific railroad's Burbank branch line between North Hollywood and Warner Center.
Commission Chairwoman Christine Reed said commissioners have made no final decision on a Valley route and are "merely protecting the land from being developed before a decision is made on where to put the rail line."
In fact, the commission also voted to open negotiations with the owner of land on the alternative Ventura Freeway route.
Opponents say the Southern Pacific route, which roughly parallels Chandler and Victory boulevards across the Valley, is a poor choice for a high-speed transit system because it traverses too many residential neighborhoods.
But rail experts have long favored it, noting that despite the proximity to homes, the right of way is available in a single parcel, and that it connects several major activity centers, including Valley College, the Van Nuys government center and Pierce College.
Southern Pacific, which has gradually cut back to just one freight train each week on the Chandler-Victory line, recently brought the debate to a boil by announcing that it plans to sell that line and several others in Southern California.
If transit officials do not buy the rights of way, railroad officials say they will sell the land piecemeal to commercial and industrial developers.
In another rebuff to homeowner group representatives Wednesday, the commission voted unanimously to buy three parcels from Southern Pacific that are adjacent to the Chandler-Victory line and to open negotiations with the owner of two parcels in Woodland Hills south of the proposed Ventura Freeway route.
The five Valley parcels, all of which face imminent development, have a total estimated value of $46 million, commission staff members said.
Four of the five parcels would be appropriate station sites, while the other, in Canoga Park north of Victory and parallel to Canoga Avenue, is ideal for a rail maintenance and storage yard, staff planners said.
Land not ultimately used for mass transit could be sold, presumably at a profit, planners said.
Opponents say the trains, traveling as frequently as every three minutes during peak commuting hours, would ruin their quiet neighborhoods with noise, ground vibrations and visual blight. Near stations, which typically are about one mile apart, residential streets would be swamped with parked cars, opponents say.
Repeating an accusation frequently lodged by rail opponents, Marilyn Minkle of Reseda, who lives near the Chandler-Victory route, accused the commission of hastily moving to build a cross-Valley line because it would "provide developers of Warner Center with a legitimate excuse for expansion."
Although public opinion surveys indicate that there is strong support for a cross-Valley rail line, homeowner opposition along the two possible routes is well-organized and has backing from several elected officials.
A commission-ordered, $2.1-million study of the two proposed Valley routes is scheduled for completion in October. The Chandler-Victory land value appraisal is due in November.
Commissioners plan to pick a route by March and at the same time determine whether the system should be ground-level light rail, an extension of the downtown-to-North Hollywood Metro Rail subway or a combination.
The freeway route, which also passes through several residential areas, would be on pillars on the freeway's south shoulder. In initial studies, planners say it would be more costly than the Chandler-Victory line and would create mammoth traffic tie-ups wherever stations were built at freeway intersections with major north-south streets.