To get high-speed rail from Palmdale to Burbank, planners have focused for years on two potential routes that parallel the 14 Freeway and course through the rural and growing communities of Acton, Agua Dulce and Santa Clarita — hostile territory for the bullet train project.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich thinks there's a better way to go.
He is recommending to the California High-Speed Rail Authority an alternative to the south that would rely on extensive tunneling to cross the rugged Angeles National Forest.
"Such an approach," Antonovich recently told bullet train officials, "could provide a boon to the authority by eliminating conflict with Acton, Agua Dulce and Sand Canyon communities in my district while also helping the project reduce its costs and travel times."
He has made the pitch before, but this time his suggestion is getting some traction. The authority, which recently accelerated planning for the Palmdale-to-Burbank leg, has begun to seriously consider Antonovich's proposal.
During seven meetings this month in communities from Palmdale to Los Angeles, high-speed rail officials have asked members of the public to comment on the proposed corridors, including Antonovich's.
The public has a month to respond. If there is enough support for the supervisor's recommendation, the authority says his proposal could qualify for more in-depth studies, the outcome of which might eventually lead to its selection as the route for the Palmdale-Burbank leg.
"We ought to take a serious look at this," said Jeff Morales, the authority's chief executive. "I continually push our team to look at ideas and to solicit and listen to what we get from the outside. We are sensitive to community input, and we've heard the concerns of Acton, Agua Dulce and Santa Clarita. That matters."
Antonovich first approached the authority with his idea several years ago, but board members and the chief executive at the time were reluctant to work with the range of federal environmental agencies that would have to be involved in planning and approving a route through a national forest. With the arrival of Morales and board Chairman Dan Richard, the agency has been more receptive.
"We've had some discussions and talked to the supervisor," Morales said. "I'm impressed by his focus to bring improvements to that part of the county and state. He's pushed hard and we've listened."
Antonovich's proposal would run about 35 miles through the Angeles National Forest. It would go around the Hansen Dam Recreational Area, authority officials say, and include roughly 20 miles of tunnels. A specific route has not been determined.
In contrast, the other two proposals along the14 Freeway are about 48 miles long and generally follow the highway and a San Fernando Valley railroad right-of-way used by the Metrolink commuter line. About 18 to 20 miles of tunneling and more than 20 grade separations would be necessary if either was chosen.
Both corridors would begin at the Palmdale Transportation Center and end at the Burbank Airport Station, a developing transportation hub.
Although none of the proposals have been fully vetted, Morales said there could be advantages to Antonovich's plan, including lower construction costs and shorter travel times. The trip would take an estimated 15 minutes, 7 to 10 minutes less than the highway routes.
In addition, both Morales and the supervisor said there would be substantial benefits from reducing the project's effects on communities along the 14 Freeway, where the population has grown at least 24% in the last decade.
Local leaders and community groups say the routes along the 14 would bring high-speed trains near schools, disrupt the rural setting and mar the center of Acton with a viaduct.
The Santa Clara River, residential water wells and hundreds of properties would be adversely affected, they said, including the Shambala Preserve in Acton, a big cat sanctuary owned by a partnership that includes actress Tippi Hedren.
Michael Hughes, president of the Acton Town Council, said he was "very much in favor" of Antonovich's proposal, but residents and local leaders would like to see the suggested corridor moved a few more miles east to take it completely out of Acton.
In a recent letter to the rail authority, Assemblyman Scott Wilk, a Republican who represents the Santa Clarita Valley, said he supported Antonovich and urged the agency to disavow the routes along the 14 Freeway in order to "reset the discussion."
Katherine Sky Tucker, who has a ranch off the Angeles Forest Highway in east Acton, said, however, that Antonovich needs to be more specific and move his proposal out of the community.
"If Palmdale wants a station so bad, the route should all be in Palmdale so we can maintain the rural environment" in Acton, said Tucker, whose land and neighboring properties could be crossed by the project's right of way. "We are trying to save what we have here."
Other concerns could come from environmental groups should Antonovich's alternative gain momentum.
"The environmental impacts would be enormous," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, which generally supports the high-speed rail project. "Going through a national forest isn't going to sit well with my members."
Morales defended Antonovich's proposal. Even if a route is built through the forest, he said there would be substantial environmental benefits, such as reductions in traffic and air pollution across the region.
"I'm sure questions will be raised; that's why you go through the environmental review process," he said. "The tunnels could be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind type of thing."