By Jason KUROSU
One year after locals received notice of proposed rail routes slated to run through their region, residents from Shadow Hills and the surrounding communities gathered to express what they regard as a failure of transparency and ability to meet project deadlines on the part of the California High Speed Rail Authority.
The SAFE (Save Angeles Forest for Everyone) Coalition, one of the local organizations in decided opposition to the rail project, said at a meeting attended by residents and local elected officials, that they have seen little progress from the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) in addressing public concerns with the project’s potential impacts.
The Palmdale to Burbank section of the project involves four prospective routes, including three “east corridor” routes that would pass through and below the Angeles National Forest.
SAFE members say the project is running well behind schedule and that CHSRA has not been open with the community regarding environmental studies that SAFE says should have been conducted over the past six months.
Dave DePinto, SAFE member and president of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Association, said the studies should have been finished by December, yet were never conducted by CHSRA, nor with the third party oversight requested by residents.
DePinto cites a June CHSRA meeting during which CHSRA Southern California Regional Director Michelle Boehm said that a six-month study was in development and “would be completed by the end of this year.” Boehm also said that completion dates for some of the required technical studies would be advanced in order to receive early feedback from the CHSRA board.
But CHSRA spokeswoman Adeline Yee said that the six month timeline was the ideal outcome, rather than a strict deadline that CHSRA was adhering to. The current timeline has the studies projected for completion by sometime in early 2016, according to Yee.
CHSRA issued a release about an hour before SAFE’s Wednesday night meeting indicating that the U.S. Forest Service approved a permit for geophysical and geothermal studies in the Angeles National Forest.
CHSRA also announced four environmental studies will be conducted in the Angeles National Forest, a tunnel and equine review conducted by Mineta Transportation Institute, a groundwater study review by California State University, Fullerton and a seismic study review by the University of California, San Diego.
Residents, however, wanted third party experts to consult with CHSRA during the study process, and feel that CHSRA’s proposed studies present a conflict of interest, particularly regarding their choice of consultants. CHSRA CEO Jeff Morales sits on Mineta Transportation Institute’s Board of Trustees, for example.
At the meeting, DePinto described the ideal approach as a “three-headed effort” comprising CHSRA, elected officials and the community.
However, with the environmental studies not yet finished and a disconnect between High Speed rail officials and residents, SAFE’s impromptu meeting was planned, as well as a letter drafted and sent to CHSRA and elected officials, detailing SAFE’s concerns.
Local elected officials showed support for SAFE Wednesday night including Assemblymember Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando who called the project “[immoral], unethical and a waste of money.” San Fernando Mayor Joel Fajardo also decried the $68 billion cost of the project, as well as what he called a lack of transparency on the part of CHSRA.
CHSRA’s timeline has community meetings tentatively planned following the completion of the environmental studies. The project’s draft EIR is expected to be completed by winter of 2016/2017 with the final document expected by the end of 2017.
Yet DePinto and his fellow residents remain skeptical that these latest deadlines can be achieved.
“The 710 freeway tunnel’s draft EIR took four years to complete for a five mile tunnel,” said DePinto. “This is a 35 to 40 mile segment with 15 to 20 miles of tunnelling and numerous federal agencies involved. They say they’re going to finish the EIR in two, two and a half years. There’s no way that’s going to happen.”