CHSRA Puts Grapevine Alignment Back on the Table
Over a week ago, we heard it through the grapevine that the California High Speed Rail Authority was again studying the I-5/Grapevine alignment to connect Bakersfield to Los Angeles. There was some extensive discussion in the comments to a post a few days back as well, but only now am I able to get to this myself.
Basically, the Palmdale to Burbank section is facing increasingly high costs as it becomes clear that a lot more tunneling will be needed in the Soledad Canyon area along the CA-14 corridor. And that is causing the Authority to explore the Grapevine alignment again:
The Grapevine alignment had previously been discarded in favor of a route through Soledad Canyon over the Tehachapi Mountains crossing further to the east. That route would pass through Antelope Valley to Palmdale and on to Los Angeles. In earlier studies, the Grapevine route was dropped from consideration due to seismic issues and perceived high costs along I-5.
But after further study, the Authority operations committee is suggesting a new look at the I-5 corridor that could cut costs of this leg of the statewide system by “billions,” according to a staff report.
Further study of the Soledad Canyon option through the Antelope Valley found the need to build long tunnel sections and elevated structures, “substantially” raising costs from earlier estimates, according to the report.
Given that outcome, it seems reasonable to explore the Grapevine alignment again, if only to get a better sense of the cost comparisons. The Grapevine alignment also involves a lot of tunneling, so I’m not really sure it’s all that much cheaper. And it has its own environmental and logistical challenges, as the Bakersfield Californian makes clear:
The Grapevine alternative — shelved in 2002 but resurrected in a California High-Speed Rail Authority staff report set for board review Thursday — came as a shock to Lebec’s Tejon Ranch Co., which worries that such a route could endanger the ambitious mountain village community it has been planning for years.
“We relied on (the rail authority’s) decision many years ago and now we’ve gone forward with our project,” said Joseph Drew, senior vice president of real estate for Tejon Ranch….
Drew, the Tejon Ranch executive, pointed to what he described as an extreme engineering challenge of ramping up bullet train tracks as far north as the intersection of the I-5 and Highway 99 in order to overcome a sharp upward slope at the foot of the Grapevine.
He also expressed concerns that such a route could disrupt a careful accord the company has forged with environmental groups that, in exchange for Tejon’s promise not to develop in certain areas, have pledged not to fight the company’s mountain village project.
I’m not sure this is a huge issue, but something to consider.
More important is the possible impact on system ridership and revenues of cutting out Palmdale. While people like Rich Tolmach claim that sending trains where people are is somehow bad, half a million people live in the Antelope Valley, with that number projected to double to 1 million by 2020.
Any study of a Grapevine alignment therefore needs to include a study of ridership and revenues. While the Grapevine might be slightly cheaper in terms of capital cost, it could be much more costly in terms of lost revenues.
And that should include a study of lost ridership if the DesertXpress project, which has been planning to link to the California HSR line – and therefore to downtown Los Angeles. The earlier ridership study conducted by the Authority in the late ’00s did not take into consideration riders bound to or from Las Vegas, since the notion of connecting to the DesertXpress line at Palmdale wasn’t yet on the table. It is now, but as KCET reports, a Grapevine alignment threatens that link:
“It is outrageous to think that after all the studying and all the evidence that points to the fact that the route through the Antelope Valley is the most economical, sensible and efficient route, the CHSRA would even consider changing the route,” [Palmdale] City Manager Steve Williams pointed out in a statement. “It is absurd to make this kind of investment without including the Antelope Valley, which currently makes up 10 percent of the ridership.”
Also at stake is the city of Palmdale becoming a major transportation hub for Southern California. “When you combine high-speed rail with the High Desert Corridor [highway], DesertXpress rail [to Las Vegas] and the Palmdale regional airport, it will have an immense positive economic impact.”
Palmdale has a point. The purpose of HSR is to move people. To sell tickets. To get Californians to ride trains. It’s worth spending a little bit more money in the construction phase if it will help carry more riders. That’s not an abstract ideal. It’s a necessity, given the fact that the HSR system has to cover its own costs. The more riders, the better.
In addition to the questions about the construction cost and the hit to ridership and revenues of a Grapevine alignment, there’s also the concern about precedent. We know that Peninsula NIMBYs would love nothing more than to send the HSR trains over the Altamont alignment – they’ll happily dump trains and tracks they don’t want onto Pleasanton and Livermore, even if it screws over the large population and economic center of San José. Already the Peninsula NIMBYs are using the Grapevine study as a reason to demand the Authority now revive Altamont. That’s a pretty flawed comparison, but the Authority does need to consider that angle.
I’m not opposed to a Grapevine alignment, and certainly not opposed to a study of the route. But that study needs to be comprehensive, and needs to prioritize the question of lost ridership. If it costs a little bit more to send the trains through Soledad Canyon but will attract a LOT more riders, it’s worth doing.