Mayor Art Brown spent years pushing for a commuter train station combined with nearby housing in his community. But as townhouses are being finished around the $14 million Metrolink station, he's facing the prospect that California's high-speed rail line may plow right through his beloved project.
"The only option they presented to us was either losing the condo units or losing our train station," Brown said of an engineering presentation to city leaders last year.
That a successful effort to get car-dependent Californians to embrace mass transit could be derailed by another transportation project may strike some as ironic. But it's also one of the hidden costs — and a potential harbinger of delay — in the ambitious plan that would enable passengers to speed the 430 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 2 1/2 hours.
The conflict is one of many the California High Speed Rail Authority will have to resolve as it races to meet a September 2011 deadline to finish environmental work or risk losing a $2.25 billion federal grant.
"The idea that they would spend millions for a new station and remove it is a colossal waste of time and money," said Mark Goldsmith, a resident of the "transit village" next to the Buena Park station.
The first phase of the $43 billion project is planned to span about 520 miles from San Francisco south to Anaheim by 2020, with extensions northeast to Sacramento and south to San Diego by 2026. The 220 mph trains are projected to carry 41 million riders annually by 2035.
The Buena Park proposal is one of several presented by high-speed rail planners looking into ways to add an electrified track for bullet trains in a crowded rail corridor that cuts through the region. As envisioned, the segment would carry passengers from Anaheim north to downtown Los Angeles in 20 minutes — a trip that usually take more than an hour in freeway traffic. But making room for the line would require purchasing the right-of-way — and displacing homes and businesses — in eight blue-collar cities along the corridor.
On a section of track bordering the cities of Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs, planners recommend looking into moving a station for Metrolink and Amtrak trains east or north because its current site is on a curve, which would force high-speed trains to slow down. And planners would like for passengers to easily make connections between trains.
But that would mean losing the current station and a park-and-ride structure funded by the two cities.
"The rail lines are already there, parking is already there, your transportation hub is already there and now they say they want to move it and build another one. It just does not make one bit of sense," said Rep. Grace Napolitano, who represents the area in Congress.
On a section southeast of downtown Los Angeles where freight and passenger train tracks run near a recently widened street and freeway expansion project, planners suggest building an aerial structure for the high-speed rail that could create considerable noise and vibration. In Northern California there is opposition to a plan to run the line through Peninsula cities to downtown San Francisco instead of along the east side of San Francisco Bay.
Officials from the so-called gateway cities south of Los Angeles knew for years that engineers were drafting plans for a high-speed train route, but they became increasingly concerned when the project picked up speed. In 2008, state voters approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds to help build the 800-mile system. Then Congress set aside $8 billion for high-speed rail as part of President Barack Obama's push to combine stimulus spending on infrastructure with job creation.
In announcing the funding in January, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said California was getting the largest share of the $8 billion because the state had the most advanced plans.
However, local officials said they were not adequately consulted by the high-speed rail authority and are demanding a thorough review.
Buena Park joined a coalition of gateway cities demanding a chance to evaluate all options and their potential impacts before moving into the environmental review process. The demand for better coordination was recently agreed upon in a memorandum of understanding with the authority.
"We're not trying to be obstructionist NIMBY types, but it has to make sense to us," said Ernie Garcia, city manager of Norwalk.
A high-speed rail authority official insists the agency has been communicating with city planning departments since 2005, but that local officials paid little attention until the stimulus funds were approved.
"Because of the momentum we need to basically go back, start from square one to reach out to cities and explain to them where we're at," said authority Executive Director Jeff Barker. "The tone of our process right now is not to tell any city what might happen. It's to gather their input."
He said planners were working simultaneously on three other sections of the system, including San Francisco to San Jose, Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield in the Central Valley. He said he's confident at least one of the sections will meet the deadline for the stimulus funds.
"We're not going to ram any project through for the sake of the deadline," Barker said. "We're committed to the process of making sure we build the line right."
In Buena Park, Mayor Brown still could face his dilemma. But he said that if forced to choose, he would sacrifice the train station where his name is prominent on a plaque marking its opening.
"I would not take the homes away from those people," he said. "They saved all their lives in some cases to buy a home with good transportation nearby."
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