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Grapevine route emerges as cost saver for high-speed rail

The Grapevine, despite its reputation for radiator-bursting climbs, is emerging by default as the least expensive option for routing high-speed trains between Bakersfield and the Los Angeles Basin, according to preliminary plans and analyses commissioned by the state.

Planners had a number of reasons to avoid the Grapevine when it was written out of the project in 2005. But more recently, a route following Interstate 5 has become appealing because of its shorter total distance – roughly 85 miles – as compared with two alternatives that would lay about 110 miles of track east of Bakersfield through Mojave and the Antelope Valley into Sylmar.

The difference, estimated at nine minutes of travel time and more than $1 billion in construction costs, this month prompted the California High-Speed Rail Authority to order a fresh look at the I-5 option. Results of that “conceptual” study of the route’s costs and technical feasibility are due out within four months.

With a proposed price tag of $43 billion, the high-speed rail project is to link Anaheim with San Francisco by 2020 with trains traveling as fast as 220 mph. Construction is scheduled to begin next year.

A big reason why the Grapevine suddenly compares favorably with alternatives through the Antelope Valley is that recent engineering and environmental review work near Palmdale has identified unacceptable disruptions to the area and difficult design obstacles.

Two proposed routes out of the Antelope Valley along Soledad Canyon and nearby Highway 14 were rejected last year because of their potential impact on homes, a railroad, businesses and other features near Palmdale.

More recently, two other options for crossing the mountains east of Sylmar near Highway 14 were called into question when surveys determined they would require siphoning the California Aqueduct or altering a dam at Lake Palmdale (no dollar amount has been attached publicly to such work). Additionally, the two remaining Palmdale options were found to require more tunneling than expected.

Weighing options

Comparing possible routes up the Grapevine with alternatives through the Antelope Valley is tricky, especially given the limited data available publicly. The most detailed study of the I-5 option was published in 1994, though there exists some updated summary information.

At the same time, most comparisons of the Grapevine and Antelope Valley alignments were done six years ago, before the Soledad Canyon alignment – then the leading route between Palmdale and Sylmar – was taken off the table.

Time and money clearly are not the only factors influencing route selection: In 2005, the rail authority board rejected the Grapevine option after taking into consideration the route’s challenging terrain and seismic conditions, potential impacts on farmland and fears that it would turn Bakersfield into a bedroom community of Los Angeles. (The commute from Bakersfield into downtown L.A. via the Grapevine would be less than 50 minutes.)

Critics of the new route suggestion, including officials in the Antelope Valley, say the rail authority is wrong to back away from its earlier decision to run trains through the Palmdale area, where the project would serve a large population center.

Some 475,000 people live in the Antelope Valley as opposed to about 275,000 in the Castaic-Santa Clarita-Newhall corridor. A bullet train station in Palmdale has been proposed as part of the Antelope Valley route; there has been discussion of an alternate station in Santa Clarita, but no formal proposal has been made to build one if the Grapevine route is selected.

Joseph Drew, senior vice president of real estate for Lebec’s Tejon Ranch Co. — which is working on a $2 billion mountain village that the company worries could be cramped and possibly delayed by tracks up the Grapevine – said the rail authority would be “just foolish” to make route decision based on saving money rather than serving the greatest number of potential riders.

Rail authority board members have given little indication as to what would guide a choice between the Antelope Valley route and the I-5 alignment. Some project observers have theorized that the authority is revisiting the Grapevine merely to satisfy critics.

“I think that what’s driving this primarily is the criticism of people that (rail authority staff) haven’t done an adequate job in looking at the system and the cost of the system,” said Ron Brummett, executive director of Kern Council of Governments.

Seismic concerns

Steep challenges with going over the Grapevine remain. With two major earthquake faults and several smaller ones, the route’s seismic profile could undermine its other benefits.

A 2003 study commissioned by the city of Palmdale warned that building high-speed rail south of Bakersfield along I-5 could be particularly risky because the route runs parallel to dangerous faults, as opposed to generally perpendicular crossings on the Palmdale alternatives.

Jack Ybarra, president of the Campbell civil engineering firm Transmetrics, which co-authored the report along with an Italian firm that has consulted on bullet train tunneling projects in Europe, said tracks parallel to faults raise the chances of a tunnel collapse during a quake. He cautioned that the study is no less valid now than when it was presented eight years ago.

“Nothing has changed as far as I know. The faults are still there,” he said. “How do they propose to get around that?”

Rail authority staff appeared to agree with the study’s conclusions in a 2005 environmental summary that discussed the Grapevine’s seismic conditions.

“The limited constructability of the I-5 alignment option combined with a high risk of seismic impacts makes the I-5 alignment option likely to be impracticable,” the summary stated.

Local impact

When the rail authority was getting ready to decide whether to build over the Grapevine, local organizations including Kern County and the Kern Council of Governments supported the Palmdale option, but not specifically because of seismic concerns.

Some said it just made more sense to have the train system serve Palmdale’s growing population. But another worry locally, Brummett said, was that Bakersfield not be the first stop outside of L.A.

“I think it had to do with becoming a bedroom community out of Los Angeles and losing some identity and issues like that,” he said.

Drew, the Tejon Ranch executive, voiced a similar concern, saying Bakersfield would be in danger of losing valuable farmland to development, as the San Fernando Valley did several decades ago.

Such concerns may have eased somewhat following the housing-driven recession. A large number of Bakersfield homes have been left empty in the aftermath of the housing bust. But the potential development of farmland is always a touchy issue locally.

A 2005 report by rail authority staff determined that a Grapevine route that followed Union Avenue south of Bakersfield before joining I-5 would impact 20 acres of farmland, while a Grapevine route staying more closely to Highway 184 would impact 63 acres. By contrast, the State Road 58 option was expected to affect no farmland at all.

Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said that, by law, two main factors must guide the project governing board’s route decisions: maximum number of train stops but no more than 2 hours 40 minutes of travel time between L.A. and San Francisco.

But as far as balancing construction costs with service to large population centers and other factors, Wall said it’s premature to comment until the Grapevine conceptual study comes back in a few months.

“Then we can start having those conversations,” she said.

John Cox is a reporter for the Bakersfield Californian. He can be reached at jcox@bakersfield.com. This article was produced as part of a joint initiative to cover high-speed rail involving the Bakersfield Californian, California Watch, the Fresno Bee, the Orange County Register, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle.



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