I-5 Grapevine back as high-speed rail route option

May 4, 2011 

SACRAMENTO -- The Grapevine, once considered a prospective high-speed rail route between the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles Basin over the Tehachapi Mountains but disregarded several years ago, could be destined for a comeback.

A three-member operations committee of the California High Speed Rail Authority voted Wednesday to recommend reopening a study of the Interstate 5 corridor through the Tejon Pass. The authority's full nine-member board will consider the recommendation today.

The desire to re-evaluate the Grapevine comes as planners face higher costs and more complicated engineering than originally forecast for two alternatives that thread southeast from Bakersfield through Mojave, Lancaster and Palmdale before making their way into Los Angeles.

Originally, engineers believed they would only need to build 13 miles of tunnels between Palmdale and Sylmar, at the northern end of the San Fernando Valley, said Andrew Althorp, a regional project manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, a consulting firm working for the rail authority. But more detailed studies since 2005, Althorp said, have given planners a better understanding of seismic concerns and the construction needs involved to avoid earthquake faults as well as increasing development along the routes. Althorp said engineers now believe they will need to bore at least 28 miles of tunnels.

A route over the Grapevine would be about 25 miles shorter than the roundabout Lancaster/Palmdale route. It could shave nine to 10 minutes off the time it takes a high-speed train to get from Bakersfield to Los Angeles.

Althorp said a rough estimate of the savings by building over the Grapevine rather than through the Antelope Valley could be as much as $1.5 billion to $3 billion. "But we need to do a conceptual analysis in order to better understand what cost savings there may be, if any," he said.

Althorp said it would cost about $700,000 and take four months for the basic study to decide whether the Grapevine corridor is feasible. During that time, he said, detailed environmental work would continue on the two Antelope Valley alternatives, "so we're not stopping any work there."

Antelope Valley leaders say they're unhappy about the possibility of reviving a competing route they thought was dead and buried five years ago.

"We are strongly against this action. This caught us off guard, frankly," said Laurie Lile, Palmdale's assistant city manager.

Lile, who presented letters from surrounding cities and chambers of commerce, said the region's population growth and efforts to develop transportation systems warrant keeping the high-speed route in the Antelope Valley. An additional study of the Grapevine, she said, is expensive and unwarranted.

The Tejon Ranch Co., which owns thousands of acres in the Tehachapi Mountains along the Grapevine, also opposes a new study of the I-5 corridor because of its potential effects on wildland preservation and the company's plans for a resort development near Lebec.

"It wouldn't break our hearts to see this go away today," said Eileen Reynolds, vice president of government affairs for the Tejon Ranch Co.

But Roelof van Ark, the rail authority's chief executive officer, said the agency has a responsibility to look at all of its options.

"This does not mean that the alignments through the Antelope Valley are going away," he said Wednesday. "We believe there are reasons why the authority should be looking at something more than what you've got at the moment."

As detailed environmental and engineering studies have taken place, van Ark said the two Palmdale-to-Los Angeles options "have become extremely cumbersome, more and more costly, and more environmentally challenging."

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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