High-Speed Rail Concerns

It’s bigger than a freeway construction project. Bigger than an airport construction project. Bigger than a Metro line construction project. Bigger than a pipeline construction project. Bigger than a bridge construction project. Bigger than all of them combined. But, not better, according to California stakeholders from the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Antelope Valley, Santa Clarita Valley and, now, San Fernando Valley, who are uniting and fighting to stop damaging high-speed rail plans “dead in their tracks.”

After a series of negative experiences with the California High-speed rail Authority (CHSRA), San Fernando Valley stakeholders will know soon if high-speed rail officials learned from their mistakes. Gone is the Authority’s free ride and sense of entitlement as they face Southern California’s sophisticated, organized and populous communities that demand better work and greater accountability. “Re-engineered” routes are due to be presented by CHSRA to community groups in the near future and represent the latest, if not the last, opportunity for high-speed rail to salvage its credibility and tenuous future.

Is CHSRA listening?

The righteous tone of CHSRA Chairman Dan Richard’s recent Op-Ed, entitled, “Rail critique early and short-sighted” was off-track. It was CHSRA that sputtered out of the station in the Palmdale to Burbank project section, creating unwarranted levels of fear and panic among affected communities through misjudgments, miscommunications and insensitivity to language barriers. 

Mr. Richard’s posturing about “minimizing the impacts to communities, the environment and our precious natural wildlife,” ignored candid feedback to CHSRA by tens of thousands of stakeholders in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, namely that present routes (East and West Corridor) irreparably alter the character of communities and will forever damage sensitive environmental areas, threaten dwindling water supplies, destroy local businesses and economies, and fall far short of legislative mandates related to the project’s cost, speed and location. Mr. Richard’s rhetoric is misleading when he claims tunneling “brings down costs, shortens trip times and reduces impacts on communities along the route.” 

Mr. Richard again ignores common sense, facts and community feedback when he states that tunneling through both the National Monument and Angeles National Forest “would not disturb the pristine natural forest area or damage the flora and fauna of one of California’s greatest urban habitats.” It’s evident to everyone but Mr. Richard, it seems, that a 30-40 foot diameter tunnel boring machine, which would create approximately 1.5 million truck trips removing excavated dirt, while also threatening local water supplies, would be pretty disturbing.

CHSRA has not listened as communities along San Fernando Road, already severely impacted by Metrolink and freight rail lines, oppose the bigger, faster, wider, noisier and more frequent high-speed rail trains coming through their communities. Residents refer to the combination of track, train, wires and sound walls as “Death Walls” that would further divide communities, increase gang threats and promote graffiti. CHSRA is ignoring the voices of these lower-income, bilingual communities about the economic destruction, aesthetic and cultural degradation, and environmental injustice high-speed rail would impose. 

The Authority’s poor “track record” is supported by the fact that since mid-August 2014, communities in the Palmdale to Burbank project section have received zero response from CHSRA to: 

• more than 6,000 written comments following EIR/EIS scoping meetings

• thousands of comments at informational meetings in English and Spanish speaking communities along proposed routes (including more than 2,000 attendees at a single meeting in Lake View) 

• a 19-page position paper submitted two months ago by S.A.F.E. Coalition 

• more than one hundred letters from horses and one mule

• testimony from 40+ residents at CHSRA’s September 2014 board meeting.

Is CHSRA Transparent and Above the Law?

The most obvious illegal maneuver by CHSRA and example of what voters did NOT approve are the proposed East Corridor alternatives which are NOT in an existing transportation and utility corridor as required by legislation. CHSRA further acted with arrogance by offering no apology for blindsiding communities, with no advance notice, of route alternatives in the middle of summer in 2014, repeating that offense during the 2014 holiday season, and then mailing threatening “permit to enter” letters dated Christmas Eve.

There is a both a lack of transparency and a conflict of interest when County, City and State elected officials agreed with CHRSA to embargo and withhold information on several occasions from the public about the above announcements for weeks at a time. Similar transparency concerns were recently revealed on a Sunday night in Burbank, which held its first “emergency” City Council meeting in several decades to begin the process of shining light on land deals potentially involving the Airport Authority and CHSRA.  Burbank residents, long affected by airport and freeway construction impacts, have just begun to join the chorus of stakeholders statewide opposing the secretive, behind closed doors schemes of CHSRA. As CHSRA belatedly embarks on a “community advisory” process, we wonder why such a basic technique had to be demanded by community leaders and not offered from the outset.

Mr. Richard’s rationalization that study of the infeasible East Corridor alternatives resulted from international best practices and input from communities is simply “spinning” the Authority’s capitulation to political interference. We will not ignore what led to the pursuit of stations in both Palmdale and Burbank, as well as the joint powers authority of the High Desert Corridor project. The record is very clear that years of lobbying and advocacy by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a county supervisor for more than 30 years and past chair of Metro, unchecked by our L.A. City Council, is what led the Authority to create all of the damaging routes which jeopardize the future of the northeast San Fernando Valley while providing little, if any, benefit.

It’s time that a premature L.A. City Council motion, introduced by Councilman Tom LaBonge in June 2014, endorsing CHSRA, is replaced with a motion protecting the interests of the City’s San Fernando Valley residents. We are watchful that nearly half of the present L.A. City Council voted for high-speed rail while serving in the legislature. Given the overwhelming community opposition to high-speed rail, we call for all City Council members to act independently and responsibly to fight present plans which would seriously damage the City’s residents, eviscerate the spirit and tranquility of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and Angeles National Forest, and destroy the character and economies of our northeast San Fernando Valley communities. These communities should not be held hostage by unjust inclusion in endless environmental studies and lawsuits as is the case in the nearby 710 freeway debacle.

We seek the facts and a response to our Public Records request about all routes that have been studied to date to ensure equitable treatment of alternatives and communities. And, we want it noted that the Authority recently admitted to violating the Endangered Species Act in Northern California.

Last, we want to know how voters have been left out of deciding if a project approved at a $9.95 billion level of bonding, is entitled to expenditures in excess of $68 billion by its own reports, and in excess of $100 billion by others. We challenge the Governor, who stated, “Don’t worry about the money” at the Authority’s staged “groundbreaking” event in January in Fresno, and demand state funding be halted to CHSRA if it does not meet legislated requirements related to costs, travel times, fares, ridership projections and other performance indicators. How ironic it is that the Governor reduced the amount of the recently approved Water Bond (which benefits all Californians) but supports high-speed rail which will not be affordable or accessible to many Californians!

Is CHSRA “Working Backwards?”

Recently, Congressman Adam Schiff, himself a high-speed rail supporter, called for elimination of routes that go through the National Monument and National Forest and, ultimately, tunnel or proceed at-grade or on elevated platforms into the communities of Shadow Hills, Lake View Terrace, La Tuna Canyon, Kagel Canyon, Sylmar, San Fernando, Pacoima, Sun Valley and Burbank. 

In interviews, Congressman Schiff asked if high-speed rail, like other large transportation projects, was starting with its conclusion and “working backwards.” We ask that same question of our local elected officials, some of who publicly state that high-speed rail will happen or has to happen and that we should make the best of it. We believe it has to happen per the law or not at all. We demand CHSRA open its books and ensure that only “feasible” alternatives, as defined by state and federal legislation, be included in environmental studies.

To conclude, we say to CHSRA: “Go back to the drawing board; stand on common sense and sound financial principles; separate yourself from political influence; and present alternatives that are lawful and just.” Legislators, city officials, residents, businesses and the press must rein in this project, create clean-up legislation or kill it. Growing public support exists for redirecting the funds to projects that really benefit the San Fernando Valley and our State such as local transit alternatives, water supply projects, public safety, emergency response, and education and healthcare. 

We again call for elimination of infeasible, ill-conceived and money-wasting alternatives from further consideration before the long and costly environmental study phase begins.

If not, we will unite with opponents statewide in a manner the State has not witnessed before. High-speed rail will no longer be referred to as “the train to nowhere.” Instead, it will be the train that gets stopped, dead in its tracks, right here in the San Fernando Valley. 

In unity, we say “Don’t railroad our communities!”