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5-Mile Rail Tunnel Would Run Under I-5, San Clemente

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state agency wants to create a mammoth five-mile tunnel under Interstate 5 to run its controversial proposed high-speed rail line through San Clemente.

The plan, which will go before the California High-Speed Rail Authority board next month, is winning guarded support from city officials, who favor the route over an earlier plan to run the trains through a covered trench along San Clemente’s shoreline and pier area.

State officials said the tunnel would cost hundreds of millions to build and would be a unique engineering achievement. Still, burrowing under the city appears to have more political support and raise fewer environmental and safety concerns than adding a high-speed rail line to the fragile coastal bluffs of San Clemente, officials said.

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“We will oppose anything on, under or through our beach,” said Councilwoman Stephanie Dorey. “The beach is just not an option for double tracking or high-speed rail.”

Transportation officials are trying to reduce delays and provide faster service between Los Angeles and San Diego at a time when more people are using the train to beat freeway congestion.

Trying to Ease a Key Bottleneck

San Clemente is considered a key bottleneck in the rail system because the current single set of tracks runs along a narrow beach area.

Planning for the high-speed line is still in its early stages, as is a separate plan by Amtrak to build a high-speed rail line through San Clemente’s beach. Neither plan has won funding, though the High-Speed Rail Authority expects to receive $25 million from the state this year for an environmental review.

The tunnel would run from existing tracks just north of the pier at Avenida Pico through undeveloped land to Interstate 5 and on a route roughly following the freeway before reconnecting with the coastal tracks around San Onofre.

City officials said the plan is appealing because it could result in the removal of all train traffic along the beach area, which has long been a source of concern because beach-goers must walk across the tracks, sometimes dodging speeding trains.

The city has been battling plans by Amtrak to add a second set of tracks along the beach. Amtrak wants to use it for high-speed trains running between Los Angeles and San Diego. If the tunnel is built, officials hope all trains--including Amtrak, Metrolink and freight lines--will be routed around busy beach areas.

“I’m certainly not for the beach route,” said San Clemente Councilman Wayne Eggleston. “That would be a disaster for San Clemente. Our hope is that freight and Amtrak trains would go with the high-speed rail under the I-5 and get the tracks off the beach altogether.”

The proposal is part of a larger blueprint for improving rail service across California that could cost more than $25 billion, said Dan Leavitt, deputy director of the High-Speed Rail Authority. Officials envision a new fleet of trains crisscrossing the state at speeds of more than 100 mph.

Some San Clemente residents question whether the fragile costal bluffs can handle either double-tracking on the beach or the proposed tunnel.

“Can they do that much digging without destabilizing the bluffs?” asked Bill Hart, chairman of the city’s Coastal Advisory Commission. “That entire area is considered an environmentally sensitive habitat.”

The city has asked the rail authority to stop considering any rail route along the beach, and has suggested building the line alongside the proposed Foothill South toll road.

“We should look at alternatives that go around the city and not through it,” City Manager Mike Parness said.

Leavitt said the tunnel appears to be the best option. The idea of double tracking along the beach raises environmental concerns, and building tracks along the toll road would be even more costly than the tunnel, he said.

Not Many Options to Consider

“There are not a lot of options out there,” Leavitt said. “We’ve done enough work to show that the I-5 concept would be less costly and have less environmental impacts than trying to build a much longer route along the foothills. We think that the tunnel has a lot of promise.”

The Los Angeles-to-San Diego run has seen an increase in passengers in recent years.

Ridership on the Pacific Surfliner corridor, between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, surpassed 1.5 million people in 1999 and keeps growing, Amtrak officials said. This year, through July, almost 1.4 million riders have taken the train.

Amtrak said double tracking along the route would cut the time of trips by as much as 30 minutes.


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