By Noel T. Braymer
After passage of Prop 1A in November 2008 which gave the California High Speed Rail project almost 10 billion dollars in funding,everything seemed to go wrong. The project was on death’s door by 2012 with growing opposition from property owners who could be affected by the project. This was particularly true in the San Joaquin Valley. Since 2012 after a new Business Plan was written and with major management changes, the project and its relations with many of the impacted communities has slowly improved.
The most recent good news is the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the City of Bakersfield against the California High Speed Rail Authority. As part of the settlement the Authority has agreed to study a second possible route of High Speed Rail into Bakersfield which is the city’s preferred choice. This route is along the UP right of way at the north end of downtown Bakersfield. The motivation for settling this lawsuit was a recent ruling by the Surface Transportation Board that it had jurisdiction over environmental issues, not the State on the California High Speed Rail Project. Since the Surface Transportation Board had already approved the California High Speed Rail Project, the Bakersfield lawsuit as well as 6 other pending lawsuits against the the California High Speed Rail project on environmental grounds would soon be dismissed. By reaching a settlement before the lawsuit was dismissed, Bakersfield was able to save face and get their preferred alignment studied.
It is too soon to say which of the 2 alignments will be the final route to Bakersfield. There are several problems with the city’s choice of the UP right of way instead of the BNSF which is the preferred route of the Authority. First there is the problem of getting the cooperation of the UP which can never be taken for granted. Second using the UP would make it easier to reach the Tehachapi Mountains, but would eliminate the only connections to the San Joaquin Trains to High Speed Rail which will run mostly by the BNSF. Third, most of the route of High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley is along the BNSF, not the UP and an expensive connector would be needed between the UP and the BNSF for a UP/ HSR Bakersfield Station.
There may still be some changes made on the High Speed Rail alignment on the BNSF to downtown Bakersfield to reduce opposition to the project. It was a good move the Authority’s part to offer a face saving deal with the City of Bakersfield for settling their lawsuit. The Authority didn’t need to to so since the city’s lawsuit was bound to be dismissed anyway. But this should help in future negotiations with the city when a final route is selected.
The other hot spot now for California High Speed Rail is the final route between Burbank and Palmdale. The original preferred route follows Highway 14 along the cities of Santa Clarita and Acton. The new route being looked at as an alternative is 10 miles shorter at 35 miles between Palmdale and Burbank opposed to 45 miles following the 14. It does this with a direct route in a long tunnel that goes under the mountains and bypasses Santa Clarita. Most of the opposition to High Speed Rail is from home owners in Acton and Santa Clarita. It is likely that the final choice will be a direct tunnel route that follows the line of least resistance.
The California High Speed Rail Authority now has momentum to speed up construction on High Speed Rail. In early January there will be the official Ground Breaking Ceremony in Fresno. There has been much reporting about the slow rate of land acquisition for the project. There are renewed efforts to speed up this process. With a second construction contract signed now for the route south of Fresno to the Kern County northern border, we should soon see progress toward starting construction on this segment.
The issue of connectivity is still to be resolved. The Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) is planning to run 6 round trips a day between San Jose and Merced by 2022. The plan for High Speed Rail is to run 34 round trips a day between Burbank and Merced by 2022. Only 2 of the 6 ACE trains will connect directly with High Speed Rail along the UP right of way. The other 4 ACE trains will run on the BNSF to the Amtrak Station which is several blocks from the future High Speed Rail Station in Merced. The San Joaquin Trains will also continue to stop at the Amtrak Station.
The only station for San Joaquin trains with direct connections to High Speed Rail service so far was at Bakersfield. If that was moved to the UP, that would leave none. Shuttle bus connections are a possibility, but not as good as a joint station. Not only could the San Joaquin trains serve as a feeder to the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, but it would provide connections to the northern east bay area of the Bay Area. The San Joaquins have 2 round trips a day to Sacramento. Expanding and improving this service and providing connections to High Speed Rail at Merced would open a major travel market in California by rail.This could be done quickly and cheaply (compared to the cost for a High Speed Rail connection which won’t happen until after 2029).
Things are better at Burbank with expanded Metrolink and Surfliner train service planed by 2022 to connect with High Speed Rail at Bob Hope Airport. But it may be 2029 before there is direct High Speed Rail service at Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim. There will be a great deal of work needed south of Burbank before the Authority can operated up to 64 round trips a day to Union Station and Anaheim.