San Fernando City officials met with the state High-Speed Rail Authority on Tuesday, Jan. 20, about proposed rail routes between Burbank and Palmdale, including one that, according to a consultant hired by San Fernando, “would fry the city.”
Council members Robert Gonzales and Antonio Lopez, City Manager Brian Saeki, and representatives of the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) company spoke with Michelle Boehm, Southern California Regional director for the rail authority, for nearly 40 minutes seeking more clarity about a route that would cut through densely populated neighborhoods of the Northeast Valley.
San Fernando is the only city that lies in the path of this route under consideration, known as the SR 14 Corridor. It would travel north from a stop at the Burbank Airport, and travel above ground through disenfranchised communities that include Sun Valley, Pacoima, before tunneling through the foothills.
It’s the “at-grade” aspect of SR 14 that has city officials most concerned, because the high-speed rail would share the same right of way that the Metrolink and Union Pacific trains currently do. In this configuration, the high-speed train — which can go as fast as 200 mph — would not stop through San Fernando and have to be be self-contained by large sound walls that would divide the city north and south through the length of the route.
“That’s the only alternative that would completely fry the city,” said TOD consultant David Sargent. “It would blow out Truman (Boulevard), San Fernando Road…it’s the ‘no downtown’ alternative.”
Boehm repeatedly stressed the rail authority is still in an investigative phase of determining potential routes and corridors to connect Burbank and Palmdale: that nothing had been decided, and that the state would continue to meet with cities and their constituents.
“Obviously we are in the planning process for our Palmdale to Burbank section,” Boehm said. “We are looking at conceptual alternatives for that section. It is probably one of the most complex — if not the most complex — sections of the entire system. … We have very, very challenging geography. And so we’re looking at the whole range of alternatives.
“So we are in the process of studying different alternatives in that East Corridor — what we’re calling it — as well as in the SR 14 corridor. We will continue to study those though the first part of this year as we begin to get more and more focus on the alternatives that would be studied more in-depth through an environmental process. So I want to be clear that the planning process to ultimately get to “the route” that the High-Speed Rail Authority will focus on to connect Palmdale to Burbank is twofold right now. We have the higher level planning process that is going on right now to come up with the range of alternatives, the number of conceptual routes between Palmdale and Burbank that would be studied in even more depth, through an environmental process in order to arrive at, ultimately, the “one route,” that is both the locally preferred and the least environmentally damaging route. And that’s what we’re working on right now, is coming up with that range.”
When asked when the alternative routes are finalized, Boehm replied, “I would always put alternatives in ‘air quotes’ because as you go through this process and the environmental process those alternatives are always moving and shifting — it is not unusual for an alternative…for instance the alternatives we talked to the public most recently about, it would not be unusual for one of those to go away, for something else to come on the table.
“And that will continue to happen and that will continue to be fed by what we learn from technically studying things — that it may be impossible because of engineering challenges, and as we get community feedback. Because those community issues can create as much impossibility as the technical. So those will continue to move through the environmental process. Things go away; things move as well. So it would be [roughly] about two years from now before we would really be able to say with some clarity that this is ‘the route’ from Palmdale to Burbank that we’re going to take.”
She also made the point that various routes now being discussed and explored would be paired down, and that final proposals may not resemble what is currently being discussed.
“We’re gonna build a little more time into this planning process to come up with that range of alternatives,” Boehm said. “As you know there is a lot of discourse in the San Fernando Valley in different communities about it right now. So we’re gonna build a little more time to make sure we have the opportunity to go back, reach back out to the public at least one more time ore multiple more times before we come out and say ‘these are the alternatives, whether they be four or six or two’ — whatever they are — ‘that will be studied.’
“I would anticipate that now being late spring…Originally we had hoped we could do that a little bit faster, but we feel that building a little more time into the process in the beginning is going to pay dividends in the long term of moving the project forward.”
Saeki raised the question on whether an underground route through the city would be considered when it is time for draft Environmental Impact reports and studies.
“We’ve been hearing stories or explanations of why an underground option isn’t feasible through San Fernando,” Saeki said. “Some engineers of yours said it’s not feasible for engineering reasons. We say ‘you give us the studies to show that it’s not feasible’ and they can’t produce them. But the last time we were at [a meeting at] Las Palmas, we asked the same question and the answer was ‘we don’t know if it’s not feasible or not.’ Do you know what the answer to that question is? Have you done the preliminary studies enough to know that an underground option through San Fernando is not feasible?”
Boehm said the rail authority is considering that option, and could provide more information in February, “but right now I cannot say one way or the other.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Boehm reinforced the notion that eventually a plan would be in place, and everyone impacted along the route might not be happy.
“We’re putting together a plan. It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “We are going to study a range of alternatives. Those alternatives are going to have different impacts in different communities. It’s gotta be fair, and it’s gotta be public. At the end of the day, the best possible alternative will come out of the mix. And it might not be perfect.”