The California High-Speed Rail Authority held an “open house” in Burbank, the City of San Fernando, and Sylmar this week to discuss plans and routes for a bullet train that is proposed to run through these and other communities.
The community meetings are being held as “outreach,” as the authority pursues it’s plans to have the first high-speed rail system in the U.S. operational by 2029, running from San Francisco to the Los Angeles area in under three hours. The plan is to have the system eventually extend north to Sacramento and south to San Diego, connecting up to 24 stations across the state.
“This is the transportation system that is for our sons, daughters and grandchildren,” Michelle Boem, the Southern California Regional Director for the high-speed rail authority, told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.
Boem said high-speed rail is a system that should link with other transportation agencies. At the Burbank meeting held Monday, Dec. 8, residents discussed a proposed plan that would place a stop at the Burbank Airport. “As long as it isn’t near my home, I’m fine with that,” said a long time resident.
There has been a lot of controversy about the system, which wasn’t lost on residents who attended the meeting at Las Palmas park in the City of San Fernando on Tuesday, Dec. 9. The residents who attended overwhelmingly disapproved of the proposed plan to have the train come through the communities of Pacoima, San Fernando and Sylmar.
“What’s the point of this? The will of the people here is not to have it go through our community at all, but they can still do it anyway. They are just going through this as a formality,” said Estela Chavez, who lives near the proposed San Fernando route.
As residents moved from the video screens and representatives placed at stations throughout the community room, they raised questions and concerns about the daily disruption and dissection the train would cause to their small, tight-knit community.
The City of San Fernando, which is only 2.6 miles, would reap little to no benefit, residents expressed, especially if the tracks are to run above ground and be walled off. Residents are concerned that it would not only create an “eyesore,” but would also physically carve up their community with the train barreling through town.
The high-speed train would run as fast as 220 mph through unpopulated areas, and an engineer told residents it would slow down to 200 mph traveling through the Northeast Valley communities.
“I’m worried that it will kill our town and businesses,” Chavez said. She also noted that she was given different information from various representatives.
“I asked one engineer how long it would take for the train to shut down in an emergency and he said it would take five miles; another told me it wouldn’t be that long. I am getting mixed information.”
San Fernando city officials have written letters of opposition to the above ground proposal, and have also raised several questions regarding the impact to the local business community, and environment.
In a letter dated Aug. 29, 2014, City Manager Brian Saeki wrote:
“The City of San Fernando City Council continues to be opposed to California High-Speed Rail Authorities proposed SR-14 high-speed rail alignment route for the Palmdale to Burbank Project Section that includes a surface high-speed rail line through the City of San Fernando. The SR-14 high-speed rail alignment will require amongst other things, grade separations, sound walls, and double tracking through its 1.6 mile portion that runs through the City of San Fernando.
“The proposed SR-14 rail line alignment at surface and an elevated rail design would effectively split the community in half and obliterate the City’s historic downtown area and civic center area that are located on both sides of the proposed pathway of the High-Speed Rail Project. The City’s Police Department, City Hall, Public Works Operations Facilities, the San Fernando Middle School Auditorium (potential local historical landmark), and the Cesar Chavez Monument are adjacent to or within 300 feet of the existing railroad right of way that is being considered as the future route of the proposed high-speed rail road.”
“This is a very large infrastructure project, and projects of this magnitude do have human impact and we are very aware of that,” said Boem, who pointed out that there is a broader perspective to be considered.
“Southern California currently has 38 million people living in it. By 2050 we will have 50 million people living in it, and in order to make sure that we have an appropriate and thriving transportation system we need to make sure that we are building the infrastructure to accommodate that population growth and that we can move people and goods around and across the state effectively.
“If we don’t build this project and we limit our ability to move about the state then where will we be?” Boem asked. “If not high-speed rail, then what?” Answering her own question, she added, “We will be in complete gridlock on our roadways and freeways without high-speed rail.”
“I am concerned about the safety of my students,” said San Fernando Institute of Applied Media Principal Olivia Robledo, whose school is located on Brand Boulevard.
Obledo and other residents questioned how they would navigate around the train, which would travel on constructed tracks next to existing Metro Rail tracks. Residents also voiced concerns about underground power lines, and recalled the fires that came up through manholes following the 1971 earthquake that leveled buildings.
“It brought down the new building at Olive View Hospital, not the old one, the new one,” said Ruben Rodriguez, director of Pueblo Y Salud, who also raised his concern about the negative environmental impact to the Northeast Valley.
Juan Carlos Valasquez, an engineer representing the high-speed rail authority, told residents that seismic warning systems would shut down the train. He said some have noted feeling safer underground during an earthquake. However, the proposed plan for Pacoima, San Fernando and Symar is to place the train above ground. The train could have fencing or possible sound walls that would encase both the high-speed train along the Metrolink train alongside it. Engineers told residents because of earthquake faults, underground construction was not appropriate.
“We already have a lot of undesirable projects that have been placed here, including freeways [the 210 and the 5], and as a result there are children who have asthma,” Rodriguez said.
”The train might be a good thing. But it’s not good for our community because it’s doing what the freeways did in the past. It’s dividing our community, and we don’t know what some of the health effects will be in 10 years from now” he continued. “They built the freeways years ago, and now we have one of the highest rates of asthma in our community. Not only that, we’re gonna have a ‘Berlin-style’ wall that divides the community — literally. And we don’t need it.”
Rodriguez also asked representatives about the impact of magnetic fields from the power lines that would be installed to run above the train, but he didn’t receive a definitive explanation.
Andrea Harris, a Lake View Terrace resident who attended the meeting in San Fernando, said that she was also concerned about the environmental and health impact.
“The dump is right where they are proposing to place the track. It’s got to unearth toxins, and all of that is going to come down into our community, and travel downstream into our community and homes,” she said.
Harris said she had recently retired after working for the last 31 years, and is not in a position where she could uproot and look for another home.
“I was looking forward to this next phase of my life and I don’t want to have to worry about my home and property value,” Harris pointed out.
Katherine Perez Estolano, the high-speed authority board member who represents Los Angeles, bristled when the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol posed the concerns of residents, and said she was familiar with the San Fernando corridor.
“I talk to people all the time who support this, especially in the Fresno and the Central Valley who want jobs … This isn’t a ‘Mothers of East Los Angeles,’ this is different,” she said, referencing the organized grassroots effort that turned back a toxic waste incinerator in the 1980s.
Perez Estolano and other high speed rail representatives maintain that these series of community meetings provide feedback that they consider.
Harris, meanwhile, said she didn’t like the ‘open house’ format that was used for community outreach, noting it didn’t allow residents to hear the questions raised by others.
“This is very controlled environment, which is probably what they want,” she said.
Other residents from Lake View Terrace who attended the meeting in San Fernando worried that this project will pit one community against another, asking if it is going to come down to which community screams loudest. “They never propose to put these projects through Beverly Hills,” one person said.
Added Harris, “I think anytime you can get to one place to another quickly that’s one thing, but not at the expense of a community.”
The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol will continue to cover this story in upcoming issues.