Should the CHSRA Bypass Santa Clarita With a Tunnel?
At a public meeting in Santa Clarita last week about 75 residents showed up, most of them to support putting the HSR tracks somewhere else:
Many in attendance Tuesday were homeowners from Santa Clarita worried about one of two similar routes following the 14 Freeway taking their homes….
One problem is how to get from Palmdale in the Antelope Valley to the San Fernando Valley, a 45-mile journey. Originally, the Authority planned to bring the train along an S-curve paralleling the 14 Freeway but residents from Sand Canyon and Santa Clarita council members objected, saying these two closely related routes would take out homes, churches and come too close to schools.
Now, for the first time, the CHSRA has proposed an alternative. It will study a tunnel under the mountains for a more “direct route” from the Palmdale Transportation Center to the Burbank Airport. The tunnel route is supported by the city of Santa Clarita and Fifth District County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
Michael Hogan, a member of a committee formed with the help of the city to organize resident concerns, said the city and residents prefer the alternative tunnel route. “Yeah. That would be fantastic,” Hogan said.
Obviously a tunnel would be the easiest solution for those living along the proposed route in Santa Clarita. Just put it under the mountains and be done with it!
Of course, tunneling anywhere is not easy (just ask Seattle), and that’s likely to be true of a tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains. It turns out that Metro staff had looked at a tunnel before – and rejected it as technically infeasible:
Susan MacAdams, the former High Speed Rail Planning Manager at Metro, said the tunneling proposal would cost 10 times as much as the surface route and that tunneling would be problematic because large, boring equipment must clear a path beneath the 5 Freeway and major flood control channels.
“Like all other ancient river basins throughout Los Angeles County, there is a mixed face of debris: large boulders, soft sand and occasional deposits of tar and oil. Not good for tunnel boring machines. Not recommended,” MacAdams wrote in a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The tunnel would be 20 or 30 miles long, and even if you could get the tunnel boring machine to the site, there’s all sorts of problems that could occur underneath the mountains. If the TBM gets stuck, it’ll be almost impossible to dig it out, especially if it is stuck south of the 14 or north of the 210.
There’s another consideration to this tunnel – it would bypass Santa Clarita entirely. Which is of course what the residents who showed up at the meeting would like. But is that what’s best for California’s transportation network?
Noel Braymer at RailPAC points out the downsides of bypassing Santa Clarita:
What will be lost if the original route is rejected? The original plan would have rebuilt the railroad and grade separated it for High Speed Rail, Metrolink and freight trains in the San Fernando Valley to Sylmar. There would have also been track improvements for Metrolink for sharing more of the right way with High Speed Rail. It now takes an hour and 55 minutes to travel Metrolink between Los Angeles and Palmdale. It takes almost an hour by Metrolink between Newhall and Los Angeles. With this more direct High Speed Rail route getting between Palmdale and Los Angeles will take under 30 minutes but with no intermediate stops. This will result in limited connections for Metrolink to High Speed Rail or speed improvements for Metrolink from sharing more right of way with High Speed Rail.
A major problem for Metrolink now is the single tracked tunnel built in the 1870′s connecting the San Fernando Valley to the Santa Clarita Valley. Besides being single tracked it has speed restrictions of 35 miles an hour and sometimes less.This is a major bottleneck for Metrolink service. The straighter route is better for longer distance service past Palmdale, but does nothing to improve service for the 3 Metrolink Stations in the Santa Clarita Valley.
It is unknown at this time if commuter service will be available on High Speed Rail from Palmdale. The High Speed Rail line will have plenty of capacity. There are plans for over 60 round trips a day which will mean 4 to 5 trains an hour most of the day. Local all stops High Speed Rail Trains are planned along with faster express trains with limited stops. There is plenty of track capacity to add extra trains for local, commuter type travel between Palmdale and Los Angeles. Some transfer traffic to High Speed Rail from Metrolink would be possible from Palmdale and Burbank. But for residents of Santa Clarita (which include Newhall and Saugus) connections to High Speed Rail won’t be practical.
Problems with traffic will remain on the I-5 and Highway 14 north of Los Angeles even with High Speed Rail. High Speed Rail will allow greater development and population growth without adding to the traffic to I-5 and Highway 14 for the Antelope Valley. High Speed Rail service will reduce some vehicle traffic north of Los Angeles. But it will do nothing about the heavy truck traffic on the I-5 north of Los Angeles. Large diesel trucks are a major source of pollution, traffic congestion and are often involved in major traffic accidents.
Braymer concludes by assuming that the fewer impacts of a tunnel will lead the Authority to adopt it as the preferred alternative. I’m not so sure. I suspect that the significant technical challenges and the high cost of building such a route will lead the Authority to tell Santa Clarita that building along the Highway 14 corridor is the only viable option at this time to connect Palmdale to Burbank.
Doing so also preserves a station option for Santa Clarita, home to at least 200,000 people (maybe a lot more if the Newhall Ranch development is built, which it shouldn’t be). A Santa Clarita station also adds a large pool of commuters as potential riders for the bullet train, building up revenue and ridership.
So even if a tunnel were affordable and feasible, it might not be the best way to serve the population of California.