Business groups in the greater San Fernando Valley are expressing support of a proposed high-speed rail route between Palmdale and Burbank that would tunnel through the San Gabriel Mountains. This alternate route, suggested by L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, is now under consideration by the California High Speed Rail Authority as it takes public comments on competing plans. Leaders of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, the Valley Economic Alliance, the Antelope Valley Board of Trade and the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance are supportive of this new option. “Going through the mountains is a smart alternative and I commend (Antonovich) for coming up with something creative like that,” said Stuart Waldman, president of VICA. The authority’s original proposal was for a 45-mile section between Palmdale and Burbank roughly following the 14 freeway to where it meets the 5 freeway in Santa Clarita. From there it would pick up existing tracks parallel to San Fernando Road south to Burbank. Parts of that route would require about 20 miles of tunnel in sections through the mountains, near the interchange of the 14 and 5 freeways, the Sand Canyon area, and between the unincorporated communities of Agua Dulce and Acton. The new Antonovich option would instead have the trains leave Palmdale east of the 14 freeway, traveling in a 15- to 20-mile tunnel burrowed deep under the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles National Forest, and exit near neighborhoods in the east San Fernando Valley, perhaps Pacoima, Lake View Terrace or Sun Valley. An exact alignment on where it would enter and exit the mountains has yet to be developed. Antonovich proposed the tunnel as a way to decrease travel times and mute opposition that may arise in the unincorporated neighborhoods where the original alignment would pass. But tunneling under mountains is expensive, requiring the use of a large tunnel boring machine that costs millions just to bring to a work site. By way of rough comparison, the proposed extension of the 710 freeway north to Pasadena calls for a nearly 5-mile long tunnel at a cost of $6 billion. The tunnels proposed by Antonovich would be three to four times that length. Higher costs could mean complications when it comes to funding given how hard Gov. Jerry Brown had to work to get lawmakers to back his plan to use cap-and-trade dollars to fund the rail network. The cap-and-trade program involves business paying for the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they emit. A budget deal in June finally allocated that money, two years after Brown first proposed it. However, Michelle Boehm, Southern California regional director for the rail authority, said more details are needed before getting an idea of the cost of tunneling for the new high-speed route. But she said Antonovich’s more direct route may work in its favor. “We are cautiously optimistic that the cost would be comparable,” she added. Overall funding for high-speed rail comes from several sources: $3.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars; $9 billion from a bond sale approved by voters in 2008; and a 25 percent allocation to come from the state’s cap-and-trade revenues. Private sector investment would also contribute although the amount is unknown, Boehm said. Business support Business groups are supportive of the proposal for the same reasons as Antonovich: it cuts down on the mileage, allows trains to maintain a fast speed and minimizes any opposition to the project from residents. “In other parts of the world it is not unheard of to tunnel,” said Kim Maevers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. Waldman at VICA said the ultimate goal for his organization and its members is to make sure high-speed rail happens. And if tunneling will advance the project, there is support, he said. In contrast to VICA, the Santa Clarita Economic Development Corp. is one business group along the route not taking a stance on the project. Chief Executive Holly Schroeder said that without any stations planned in the city in any of the current routes, the matter hasn’t come up for discussion by the group’s board. Plus, she added, so much of the impacts are speculative. “It has not been (an issue) that we have seen as core to our mission, and there are other issues that are more pressing,” Schroeder said. Meanwhile, political support from cities along the route is falling into place. Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford echoed the business groups in why he supports the alternative through the mountains in terms of faster trains speeds and reducing opposition. “The tunnel addresses a lot of this,” he said. The City of San Fernando opposes high-speed trains coming through its neighborhoods at grade as currently proposed by the authority. “Sound walls of up to 30 feet would shield the trains when coming through and you can just imagine what these high walls running through the city are like,” said Councilman Antonio Lopez. Paul Dyson, a Burbank resident who is president of RailPAC, a statewide non-profit educating the public on the benefits and economics of passenger rail systems, said the tunnel under the national forest is worth considering and could work out as the best solution as it reduces the length of the route and will save on operating costs over the long term. “It is done elsewhere; there are (train) tunnels in Europe and Japan,” Dyson said. “But it is pushing the limits of technology by having a tunnel that long.” Circuitous politics Wrangling over alternative routes is the latest challenge for the ambitious $68 billion plan to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2029 with trains traveling at 200 miles per hour. The project got its start in the 1990s, when serious talks began on a state high-speed rail network. The Legislature formed the California High Speed Rail Authority in 1996. Voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008 to authorize $10 billion in bonds to fund high-speed rail. The first phase of the project would connect Burbank to Fresno and work is already underway in the Central Valley. The authority is seeking to finish the phase by 2022 at a cost of $27.8 billion and projects 10.4 million riders within three years of opening. Antonovich’s proposal has not been without its critics. Property owners groups in the east Valley such as the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council and Shadow Hills Property Owners Association are expressing their dissatisfaction. The southern end of the tunnel would emerge nearby and could harm quality of life and home values, they said. The California High Speed Rail Authority has hosted seven scoping meetings on the project that drew a combined 1,000 people. Their comments, as well as those sent to the authority by email, will be evaluated and compiled into a scoping report to be released this fall, said Boehm from the rail authority. The report will help narrow down which alignments should undergo environmental review and guide future thinking by the public on the project, she added. The authority is scheduled to meet in Palmdale on Sept. 16, a meeting that is sure to draw the interest of business groups from the region. “We are just waiting and listening,” said Vicki Medina, executive director of the Antelope Valley Board of Trade, who has hosted a lunch meeting for its members to hear from Boehm.