No one said it would be easy building high-speed rail over the Tehachapi Mountains. But who knew it would be this hard?
Newly released documents show engineers trying to find the most efficient bullet-train route from Bakersfield to Palmdale have encountered unexpected difficulties, including steep grades and a previously undisclosed wetlands protection requirement costing as much as $1 billion.
Thrown off their earlier route by concerns it would take out too many wind farms and a large cement plant, project engineers are now analyzing solutions critics say could break the project's budget or, just as bad, add too much travel time.
None of this is a deal-breaker, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority said. She declined to go into details but insisted the agency will present a refined route over the Tehachapis within the next four to six months.
"We're still looking," said spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley.
Project opponents and other observers contend the challenges associated with laying tracks east of Bakersfield instead of south toward Los Angeles point to a more profound problem. They say the politics that forced the rail authority to tackle the Tehachapis instead of the Grapevine have produced obstacles that might prove unsurmountable unless the project changes direction again.
If the agency continues to push for a route over the Tehachapis, it may violate the terms of a bond measure state voters approved to fund high-speed rail in 2008, said Mike Brady, the lead attorney in a lawsuit headed to trial as soon as this year. That suit, filed on behalf of Central Valley property owners, alleges the project won't be able to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 2 hours 40 minutes specified in the bond measure.
A STEEP INCLINE
It comes as no surprise that the Tehachapi Mountains are a tough climb, even for a train that can travel up to 220 mph. The primary alternative, the Grapevine, also has steep grades that agency officials have said would require extensive tunneling and viaducts, both of which would be very expensive.
Newly released progress reports engineering firm URS Corp. sent the rail authority in fall 2013 raise concerns about a stretch of more than four miles southeast of Tehachapi near Oak Creek Road where the mountain grade is greater than 3.5 percent. That exceeds the rail authority's self-imposed limit of 3.5 percent average grade for sections measuring about four miles.
The worries evident in those reports aren't necessarily limited to the difficulty of going uphill. Just as formidable, observers say, is the challenge of going down a steep mountain.
Dan McNamara, who has worked on high-speed rail projects as a project manager for Texas-based Fluor Corp., said a bullet train going sharply downhill needs to be able to stop within a reasonable distance in case of emergency. That means a fast train would have to slow down considerably to avoid overtaxing its brakes, he said, otherwise the wheels will melt.
CHOOSING A MOUNTAIN PASS
Because of the trip time limit spelled out in the 2008 bond measure, McNamara and others said, the Grapevine makes more sense. Although it, too, would require slowing the train over the mountain pass, the route's shorter distance saves time that the more indirect trip to Palmdale does not.
But the rail authority has twice rejected the Grapevine. One reason is political: When the agency undertook a study in 2011 comparing the two alternatives' relative strengths, the city of Palmdale filed a lawsuit alleging the rail authority may not use its federal grants and state bond money to revisit an earlier announced decision to build an alignment through the Antelope Valley.
Another reason to avoid the Grapevine is the disruption it would cause Tejon Ranch Co.'s 3,450-home, 25,000-acre Tejon Mountain Village residential project near Lebec.
The rail authority agreed not to pursue the Grapevine option in 2012, prompting Palmdale to drop its suit, after an agency study determined going east from Bakersfield to Tehachapi and on to the Antelope Valley was simpler, safer and better than going south toward Tejon Ranch. That report contradicted an earlier finding by the rail authority that the Grapevine route was faster and up to $4 billion less expensive than going over the Tehachapis.
But building a route east from Bakersfield along Highway 58 past Mojave had complications, too.
MORE MOUNTAIN PROBLEMS
The city of Tehachapi, and later Kern County, asked the rail authority to find a new route when it was discovered the proposed alignment would take out two major installations in the Tehachapi area: a large wind farm and a cement plant operated by Lehigh Southwest Cement Co.
An alternative under consideration by the rail authority would still plow through a wind farm site, albeit one that has not yet been built. It would also lay tracks through Lake Thompson, a wetlands in the Mojave Desert.
According to a progress report the rail authority received from its contracted engineers in the summer of 2013, building a high-speed rail through the wetlands would require environmental remediation work costing about $100,000 per acre.
"We are talking about somewhere between $800 (million) to a billion (dollars) added cost to the project pending resolution of this issue," the report by engineering firm T.Y. Lin International states.
Alley, the project spokeswoman, dismissed the notion that a 3.5 percent incline would stop the project, noting high-speed rail in Germany crosses 4 percent grades.
She also said it's too early to estimate the route's environmental remediation costs because no final alignment has been chosen between Bakersfield and Palmdale.
"How are costs going up if we haven't determined that's the alignment that we're going to choose?" she asked.
"This is not a major concern for us because we do feel we have the ability to meet the engineering feats in the (Bakersfield to Palmdale) corridor and find an alignment that would meet everyone's needs."