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Thursday, January 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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California's high-speed rail plan not so speedy

North County Times

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ESCONDIDO, Calif. - Evaluating the environmental consequences of building a $25 billion statewide high-speed rail system is anything but speedy.

A public hearing in Escondido next week will kick off a two-year environmental analysis for the rail system's San Diego-to-Los Angeles section and launch a process that ultimately could culminate in laying 700 miles of track in California by 2020.

The proposed high-speed train line eventually would whisk San Diego County residents to the state capital of Sacramento in three hours at speeds of 200 mph.

From San Diego, the system would run north either along the coast or the Interstate 15 corridor to Los Angeles, continuing through the Central Valley to Merced.

From there, one branch would continue to Sacramento while another would go toward San Jose and San Francisco.

"This is the first meeting in a long effort that's going to extend out over the next several years to address design and environmental concerns for the inland corridor between San Diego and Los Angeles," said John Fowler, a former San Diego assistant city manager and member of the state rail authority.

Dan Leavitt, deputy director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority in Sacramento, said the authority is preparing to launch its own series of town hall meetings in San Bernardino, San Marcos and San Diego.

Leavitt said the rail authority expects to release a draft environmental study in July 2002, then finalize its report in early 2003.

That report will examine such groundbreaking issues as the type of rail technology to be used, preferred locations for stations, timing of constructing individual sections, environmental hurdles to be overcome and preferred alignment for tracks, he said.

Leavitt said the study also will examine whether trains should run along the coast or inland through Southern California.

Armed with that information, the governor and state Legislature, which recently extended the rail authority's life from July 2001 to July 2003, is expected to determine whether to pursue the enormous project and develop a financing plan.

Early talk focused on asking California residents for a quarter-cent sales-tax increase to fund up to 80 percent of the cost. But Leavitt said more recently the authority's board has emphasized the need to lure federal and private dollars to soften the impact on taxpayers' pocketbooks.

Fowler said, nevertheless, some type of tax measure likely would be required and the earliest California voters would see it on the ballot is 2004. By then, state officials expect to have decided what kind of trains to use.

Some European-style models of high-speed trains have steel-wheeled cars running on electrified tracks; others are magnetic levitation, or maglev, trains that speed along a guideway on a thin cushion of air created by huge electromagnets.

The maglev trains are faster, having been clocked at 300 mph on test tracks.

The Federal Railway Administration could factor significantly in the technology preference when it names, possibly as early as this spring, a winner in the $950 million prize for a maglev demonstration project.

Seven metropolitan regions are vying for those coveted federal dollars, including Los Angeles.

If Los Angeles wins, maglev trains could speed 83 miles from the city's busy airport by the sea to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside. That line could also become the backbone for the statewide system.

The rail authority's $25 billion cost estimate is based on traditional steel-wheeled trains and the cost rises to $34 billion if maglev is used. Temecula Councilman Ron Roberts, who serves on several regional transportation boards, said because of its expensive price-tag maglev is not as attractive in rural regions, such as the Central Valley, where it would not have many riders to help foot the cost with fares.

But in urban areas, Roberts said, maglev is expected to attract higher ridership because of its speed. The rail authority estimates that San Diego-to-Los Angeles trips would take 60 minutes on steel-wheeled trains and 49 minutes on maglev trains.

The federal demonstration-project decision also could factor into whether California officials select an inland route through Riverside and San Diego counties or a coastal one near Interstate 5.

If federal officials decide to build maglev out to Riverside, Roberts said, it would make more sense to piggyback on that line and extend it south from there.

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