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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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A Ride on the Circus Train

There was quite the dog-and-pony show in Fresno earlier this month when Gov. Jerry Brown and other supporters of the state’s $68 billion high-speed rail system gathered for a ceremonial turn of the shovel to officially kick off work on the line. The governor and other dignitaries signed a symbolic section of rail and made pronouncements – “It’s not that expensive. We can afford it. In fact, we cannot NOT afford it,” Brown was reported to have said as he laid down his John Hancock. Thankfully, the media did its job, dutifully focusing on the disparity between the official narrative and the reality of a continuing debate over the line’s future. The line is dogged by everything from analyses questioning rosy passenger projections, Republicans vowing to choke off funding and farmers digging in at the courthouse to halt the taking of their lands. And it promises to be quite the political show for years to come. But while most media coverage for now has focused on the big picture and Central Valley contretemps, it appears that an even hotter debate is just getting started. That’s my take anyway to the response to Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s reasonable proposal to consider laying down the section of the line between Palmdale and Burbank in a tunnel. The original plan for the local leg calls for a 45-mile route that would roughly parallel Highway 14 and the 5 Freeway. Antonovich’s plan would shave off some 20 miles by burrowing a tunnel underneath the San Gabriel Mountains. But on Jan. 15 some 1,000 residents turned out in Lake View Terrace for an informational meeting held by the California High Speed Rail Authority. Can you imagine that? One thousand residents turning out for a public meeting? That kind of turnout means only one thing: hot tempered residents yelling at bureaucrats and politicians sweating in suits. Many in the crowd were apparently outraged by the tunnel proposal, which unlike the original route of the leg would involve building tracks, bridges and other infrastructure through Lake View Terrace, Hansen Dam or Shadow Hills, depending on the exact final alignment. At least one person proclaimed when he voted to support the rail line by approving a $10 billion state bond in 2008 he assumed it was going straight down a freeway median. Well, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. It wasn’t pretty. There was booing, cat calls, general unpleasantness. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, came out strongly against any tunneling beneath the mountains in a letter to Dan Richard, chief of the California High Speed Rail Authority last week. “California needs high-speed rail – but it needs to be done in the right way, with proper thought given to how a particular route will affect communities and the environment,” Schiff said in a press release. Schiff cited the fact that the mountains are in the Angeles National Forest, portions of which have been designated a national monument by President Obama. But I fail to comprehend how tunneling deep beneath the mountains will exactly damage the flora and fauna. Schiff, though, is an astute politician and knows this was one idea he had to get out in front of and kill. Indeed, that letter just about signed the route’s death warrant. Now, it appears the rail authority will be forced back to the original Palmdale to Burbank route, but that isn’t exactly like laying track in the empty Mojave Desert either. It requires several miles of tunneling too and will disrupt equine and wealthy neighborhoods in Acton and Santa Clarita. Going down the Highway 14 median is not an option. The lesson in all this? Let’s call it the “Duhh!” moment. Everyone has been debating the merits of the line hundreds of miles away from the action. But now that those tracks are nosing their way into urban neighborhoods, look out! It might not be the billion dollar shortfall or cost overrun that kills the governor’s vision but every single neighborhood between Palmdale and Los Angeles. (And I haven’t even mentioned what might happen in the Bay Area.) Like they say, all politics is local. And nothing is more local than a train track running through your backyard. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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