Why a Republican may be the savior of California High Speed Rail

Analysis and photos by Noel T. Braymer

The California High Speed Rail Project has been a bi-partisan project  since 1996 from the very start. The High Speed Rail Authority was created by Republican Governor Pete Wilson and Republican Governor Schwarzenegger placed the Prop 1A measure on the ballot in 2008 which has the bonds central to financing this project. Transportation in general has been a bastion of bi-partisanship because almost everyone depends on good transportation and benefits from transportation spending. The current problems in the House of Representatives passing the Transportation Bill are due to the obstructionism of a minority. As a bi-partisan project there is plenty of blame to share for the problems of the California High Speed Rail Project. But what is largely overlooked are the efforts to fix the problems with the High Speed Rail Project by one powerful local Republican politician in Los Angeles County: County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.

This is what Supervisor Antonovich wrote in an Op-Ed article published in the Los Angeles Daily News on October 11, 2011.

“Under federal stimulus guidelines, the Federal Rail Administration defines “high speed rail” as “intercity rail passenger service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour.” It is possible to upgrade the extensive, existing Metrolink/Amtrak rail system – which already serves more than a million riders each month and stretches from Lancaster to San Diego and Ventura County to San Bernardino – to a 110-mile-per-hour network instead of attempting to replace it with a less feasible, budget-breaking 220 mile-per-hour system.

Practical, pragmatic and fiscally prudent upgrades to our existing rail network, including track straightening, double tracking, grade separations, new run-through tracks at L.A.’s Union Station, upgraded locomotives, and positive train control must be given priority. These projects would cost considerably less than a Central Valley test track, provide immediate benefit to current riders and attract millions more. This proposal to upgrade systems and make use of already owned-right-of-ways would also protect communities facing the loss of homes, schools, businesses and farms under HSRA’s current designs . Even more importantly, investing in upgrades would also immediately create thousands of jobs throughout Southern California.”

Research by the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission on the effect speed has on the cost of rail operations

This sounds a great deal like the Blended System which is proposed in the current greatly rewritten 2012 Business plan for the California High Speed Rail Authority. During the time the Business Plan was being rewritten after the first draft died a quick death in January there was a great deal of bargaining going on with local transportation agencies. As part of the deal worked out to revive the HSR Project is a billion dollars from the Prop 1A bonds to upgrade the tracks in Southern California for use by local rail service and future High Speed Rail Trains. The Blended approach in the new HSR Business Plan announce in April 2012 cut the cost of the project from almost 100 billion to 68 billion dollars. This all sounds a great deal like what Supervisor Antonovich wrote in Ocotober 2011.

Like most successful politicians Mr. Antonovich keeps getting reelected because he delivers what his constituents want. Antonovich’s Districts includes most of the San Fernando, and all of the Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys. His district was in the epicenter of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and the most heavily impacted by it. Highway 14 is an overcrowded 4 lane ( 2 lanes in each direction) freeway which the connection to I-5 was broken for months in 1994 because of earthquake damage. This cut off thousands of residents in Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys. What came to the region’s rescue was Metrolink which was greatly expanded to move people in the aftermath of the earthquake. Transportation problems continue to hold back development in this region particularly the Antelope Valley.

Burbank 1994: Crowds of commuters able to get to work with Metrolink after the Northridge earthquake closed Highway 14

Palmdale has a 17,000 acre airport with no passenger service. Land for it was originally purchased in the early 1960’s by the City of Los Angeles Department of Airports for a new airport to handle supersonic airliners that were expected to be flying by 1970. Central to making a supersonic airport work 70 miles from downtown Los Angeles was a high speed surface connector. No technology was ever chosen 50 years ago although hovercrafts were a popular choice. There was no discussion of using rail service since that was so slow, old fashion and wasn’t space age. The same problem still exist in Palmdale; without a fast connector to Los Angeles an airport there doesn’t have a chance to succeed. Many local residents want a commercial airport for economic reasons. Most people who live in Palmdale commute many miles because there are not many jobs there. The airport could create many local jobs not just at the airport but also from businesses which would be attracted to locate there because of good air service. Palmdale was an early supporter of High Speed Rail for their community and their Supervisor Michael Antonovich has been a major supporter for High Speed Rail to Palmdale.

More than setting the groundwork for bringing airlines to the airport, Antonovich is seeking to expand Palmdale’s connection by rail to California and beyond. Antonovich is working on building a new freeway to connect Palmdale with Victorville. Part of this will include right of way for rail service. Antonovich has been working to bring the planned High Speed Rail Project from Victorville to Las Vegas and open a connection to extend the service to at least to Palmdale. Part of the plan is to extend Metrolink service to Victorville via Palmdale. Antonovich is in a good position to do this. Besides being a County Supervisor, Antonovich is on the Board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority or LA Metro. He has been the vice-chair for the last year and this July takes over as chair of LA Metro. This will have an impact on Metrolink (which he is also on its Board), LOSSAN and the HSR Authority. To get a clearer idea of what Supervisor Antonovich is aiming for we can look at excerpts of a motion presented by him to the Board of LA Metro and passed on March 22 of this year.

…With the California High Speed Rail Authority committing to $1 billion in Metrolink/Amtrak improvements by 2020 and to a station in Palmdale, and with the potential for DesertXpress to connect Las Vegas to Victorville with a feeder high speed rail line connecting Victorville to Palmdale, the timing could not be any better for MTA to assess the infrastructure improvements necessary on the Antelope Valley Line to link Downtown Los Angeles to Palmdale at greater speeds….

…In addition, the MTA Board should support the placement of a Metrolink station on the Antelope Valley Line at Bob Hope Airport, which would allow for residents of the Antelope and Santa Clarita Valleys to access directly this vital airport. Furthermore, MTA should explore how to provide seamless rail service between the Antelope Valley and Bakersfield, between the Antelope Valley and San Diego, and between Ventura and Indio to overcome the current political and infrastructure barriers that do not allow for this type of service to occur without restricted speeds, schedules or transfers….

… An assessment of the potential for “tilt train” technology that might allow Metrolink to operate at faster speeds within the constrained Antelope Valley Line corridor;…

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