Bowing to pressure from the city and county of Los Angeles, the state's High-Speed Rail Authority on Wednesday voted to consider routing through Palmdale a bullet train meant to link San Diego to Sacramento.
The 680-mile rail system that is envisioned for moving passengers up and down the state at 200 mph is still in its early planning phase. Even if it passes the environmental and political hurdles that could stand in the way of such a vast project, it is not expected to begin operating before 2015.
Still, cities and counties throughout the state are lobbying hard to ensure that if the train does go into operation, their communities will be on its main line. The outpouring of concern clearly impressed the rail panel here during hearings on the route Tuesday and Wednesday.
"We are not going to get the votes that we need . . . because there is not something there for everybody," panel member Jerry Epstein, from Los Angeles, warned as he urged his colleagues to consider the Palmdale option. "The reality of the state is that the votes are in Southern California."
Epstein's remarks came after Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter bluntly told the panel that there would be little support in Southern California for the project unless the train, which is expected to cost more than $23 billion and be financed by an increase in the state sales tax, links Palmdale Airport with Los Angeles International Airport.
"You can't build this thing without really serious political support up and down the state," Galanter told the nine-member California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Development of Palmdale Airport is essential, Galanter said after the hearing, to meet California's transportation needs in the 21st century.
"This state has the seventh-largest economy in the world, but it is 1,000 miles long, divided by mountain ranges," she said. "There are only two places where you can get significant international air service [Los Angeles and San Francisco], and they are 400 miles apart. That's nuts."
The city of Los Angeles owns almost 18,000 acres in Palmdale that already is zoned to be an airport, and a high-speed rail line through the desert community would make it practical to build a third international airport there, Galanter said.
Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the rail authority, said the staff had considered laying the main line through Palmdale, but ruled it out because it would cost $600 million to $800 million more to include Palmdale instead of dropping down along the Grapevine, near Interstate 5. Palmdale's airport and the population there that would use the train are too small to warrant such an expense, he said.
"We are saying that there is a way to serve Palmdale by having a line going from Palmdale to Los Angeles and that you don't need to take the rest of the state through Palmdale to accomplish that," Morshed told reporters Tuesday.
The rail authority's staff had recommended a main route along Interstate 5 that would send the train from Sacramento through Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield, Santa Clarita and Burbank, then into Los Angeles' Union Station, with a spur to Los Angeles International Airport, before heading south through Norwalk, Fullerton, Anaheim, Irvine, Oceanside, University Town Center and into San Diego.
The rail authority authorized the staff to begin environmental studies and cost estimates on the proposed route from Sacramento to Bakersfield. It then told the staff to study both its own Bakersfield-to-Santa Clarita route and the Bakersfield-to-Palmdale route.
The rail authority ordered a study of a main line route from Los Angeles to San Diego inland through Riverside, Temecula, Escondido and Mira Mesa instead of along the coast.
After the hearing, Galanter said she was pleased that the authority decided to examine the Palmdale option. But the political fights, she said, are yet to come.
"What they did today was to postpone the inevitable tough political choices," Galanter said, by merely adding more routes to their studies.
The authority, a state-appointed body representing communities across California, hopes to submit cost estimates and financing plans to the Legislature and the governor early next year. If the project is approved by the Legislature, it will be placed before voters, possibly with a request for a half-cent sales tax increase, in November 2000.
As planned, the bullet train would have a Northern California spur that would travel west from just below Merced, through Los Banos and Gilroy, before swinging north to the Bay Area, through San Jose, Redwood City, San Francisco International Airport and into downtown San Francisco.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown unsuccessfully appealed for the main line to go through Oakland, in the East Bay. The authority authorized study of a spur from San Jose to Oakland.
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Studying Rail Routes
California's High-Speed Rail Authority decided on routes to study for a 680-mile rail system that would link Sacramento and San Diego. The panel told its staff to study two alternatives between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, and two between Los Angeles and San Diego.