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Burbank fears bullet train will compromise airport safety and water, but rail authority OKs plan

An Alaska Airlines plane crosses Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood.
An Alaska Airlines plane crosses Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood as it prepares to land at Hollywood Burbank Airport in July 2019.
(Raul Roa / Times Community News)
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Several serious concerns emerged this week about the impact of California’s planned bullet train on Hollywood Burbank Airport, Burbank’s water supply and a massive commercial development if construction proceeds on a proposed 13.7-mile route through the area.

Despite the issues, the California High-Speed Rail Authority approved its route plan on Thursday. In a series of unanimous votes, the board certified environmental documents that would establish the project’s future path from Burbank to downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station, which would include two tracks and a 50-foot deep underground station near the Hollywood Burbank Airport — when and if funding is in hand.

State officials said they had carefully considered impacts along the route, a process that had taken 15 years, and that it was time to certify the documents. The rail authority asserts the project would reduce air pollution, cut energy consumption, reduce congestion, improve transportation and boost the economy. The segment would cost $4.3 billion to build, including the train station that would be about 200 feet from a future airport passenger terminal and about two miles of tunnels near Burbank.

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South of Burbank, the route would be located along an existing right of way used by Metrolink. A future bike path would have to be rerouted. Sound walls would help reduce but not eliminate significant noise impacts. Twelve residences and 133 businesses will be taken, the document indicates. Several new grade separations along the route would eliminate rail crossings and some other streets would be closed.

Major infrastructure projects in California often result in hard-fought negotiations with municipal officials and other groups, in part because the California Environmental Quality Act gives affected parties a powerful tool to extract concessions and compensation.

The rail authority is trying to complete all of its environmental approvals for various segments by next year. It is currently attempting to complete a 171-mile partial operating system in the San Joaquin Valley for $22 billion, which would deplete its current money. The full Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system would cost $100 billion, about triple the original estimates, and with an uncertain completion date.

The approvals on the Los Angeles-to-Burbank segment came after Burbank officials sent letters and appeared at a board meeting Wednesday, calling on the state rail authority to delay approval because of many unresolved impacts.

City water officials say the construction will temporarily take out 75% of the city’s water supply and force it to recertify its system with state regulators afterward. A massive retail and commercial project that was launched a few years ago would also be taken, potentially costing the rail authority more than $900 million, according to correspondence from the developer in the last week.

Meanwhile, airport officials contend the plan could compromise air safety and that the Federal Aviation Administration has raised its own concerns with city officials.

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“The airport continues to have significant concerns over the project’s safety hazards and impacts,” Ginetta Giovinco, an attorney representing the airport, said Wednesday at the rail authority board meeting.

Patrick Lammerding, deputy executive director of planning for the airport, said that questions remain about the route’s design, including technical issues with the boring equipment, vent shaft designs and other details. “We can’t look at the documents with a reasonable degree of assurance that what they are proposing is compatible with how we operate the airport,” he said in an interview.

Lammerding said the city has also received concerns from the FAA about potential electromagnetic interference that the high-voltage train could have with airport communications and navigation equipment. Those talks are ongoing with the airport, which is operated under a joint powers authority, and the rail authority, he said.

Serge Stanich, director of environmental services at the rail authority, said Wednesday not all of the potential construction issues along the route have been resolved, but the certification of the environmental documents would be a first step. Refinements would occur in later steps, such as permits that must be obtained before construction could occur.

In additional comments Thursday, Stanich said the authority evaluated six airports that have nearby tunnels. As far as radio interference, he said the bullet train system would use a frequency that would not affect the airport.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is studying a possible tunnel under Burbank airport for the route of the state’s troubled bullet train.

Dec. 3, 2019

But in a letter dated Wednesday to the rail authority, Burbank called on the rail authority to delay approval of the documents and resolve the issues, a position that Giovinco reiterated verbally on Wednesday.

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After Burbank’s concerns surfaced Wednesday, the board indicated it did not want to delay further. Lynn Schenk, the longest-serving member, said nobody wanted to impact aviation safety. But she added, “We can’t let those unknowns stop the project. We have to keep this going.”

The environmental impact statement also indicates that the project would take a 60-acre commercial and industrial development, known as Avion Burbank, that is mostly completed. The land is needed for a tunnel staging area, the documents say. Just before the approval Thursday, board member Anthony Williams said he had to recuse himself from the voting, because he had just become aware that Amazon was a tenant at the development. Williams is an Amazon executive.

In a letter to the authority this week, Overton Moore Properties, the developer, called on the authority to delay approval of the documents. Timur Tecimer, an executive at the firm, wrote that it would cost the state more than $900 million to acquire the property. The development would consist of about 1 million square feet of industrial buildings, 142,000 square feet of condominiums, 15,500 square feet of stores and restaurants, and a 150-room hotel.

“Given that the site likely represents the most valuable real estate that would need to be acquired for the CHSR Project, the final EIR/EIS should be revised based on a more realistic estimate of the true cost of acquiring the site,” he wrote. In addition, he added, the environmental documents “should be revised to identify and evaluate additional alternatives that would avoid or minimize the need to acquire and demolish the recently-completed Avion Burbank Project.”

The rail authority at one point internally estimated the cost of acquisition at $300 million, according to an official knowledgeable about the matter who was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Rail authority spokeswoman Annie Parker said the developer’s estimate of the value was unsubstantiated, while the authority’s estimate is based on a reasonable and appropriate methodology.

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“It is not unusual for the Authority’s cost estimate to be different from a property owner’s cost estimate,” Parker said. “The Authority will continue to work with all property owners when the acquisition process occurs.”

The rail project could also disrupt the Burbank water system, which relies on a series of wells and treatment plants that are close to the future track. The wells pull water from a contaminated aquifer that is part of a Superfund site and removes industrial solvents from past aerospace operations at Lockheed Martin. The rail would involve relocating two of those wells.

Michael Thompson, manager of water engineering for the city, told the rail board that the city would have to replace 75% of its supply with purchases from the Metropolitan Water District “at great cost.” He did not specify an amount. In addition, any new wells will trigger a new permitting process, because the existing wells do not satisfy current permitting requirements and will have to be upgraded, he said. All of those costs will have to be fully covered by the rail authority, he said.

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