High speed rail funds to speed improvements to local transit

Funding for California's high-speed rail system will bring nearly $1 billion to local transit, including an expansion of L.A.'s Union Station and a two-mile track that will connect Metro lines.
Funding for California's high-speed rail system will bring nearly $1 billion to local transit, including an expansion of L.A.'s Union Station and a two-mile track that will connect Metro lines.
Ashley Myers-Turner/KPCC

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Governor Brown will soon sign legislation that approves $4.7 billion in state bonds to launch a high-speed rail system in California.

About $1 billion of the money won’t go to high-speed rail, but will instead fix up rail and subway systems in Southern California. That money was key to winning votes in the legislature for the bonds.

If everything works the way the governor hopes it will, in the not-so-distant future, passengers will board a “bullet train” in San Francisco, and two and a half hours later, disembark at Los Angeles Union Station. To make that happen, California first has to build a “bullet train”—and expand Union Station.

“Union Station is getting close to its tipping point” says Don Sepulveda heads of the regional rail division for L.A. Metro - which owns a lot of the right-of-way for the tracks into that station. “If you look at the numbers in Southern California, all train traffic and rail traffic—and passenger rail in particular—is increasing.”

Sepulveda says the flow is limited by Union Station’s “hub in” design: trains go into the station one way and have to leave the same way.

High-speed rail funds will pay to build tracks that run straight on through, so trains can arrive and leave faster. Sepulveda says high-speed rail money will also juice up some of the tracks in Southern California, leveling and straightening them and adding “grade separations,” the bridges or tunnels that take trains over or under roads.

Sepulveda says that eliminates the risk of a collision with cars or trucks and spares drivers a long wait.

“As anybody who’s seen a slow freight line of 8,000 feet moving across a grade crossing and they’ve had to sit and wait for that train to clear before they get their kids to school, before they go to work, or before they do any other thing, it’s a rather significant inconvenience.”

Metrolink’s Antelope Valley line which is slated to become a temporary connection to the initial high-speed rail segment in the Central Valley will get those grade separation enhancements. They’ll also get safety technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) that slows down trains when human operators fail to respond to warnings.

Metrolink’s Richard Katz says tracks between San Diego and Union Station will also get a facelift to enable “bullet trains” to share those tracks.

“Those are areas where you’re going to be going 90 miles an hour, not the 200 miles an hour. But even at 90 miles, that’s a huge improvement over what it is today.”

Katz says passengers who transfer from those trains to the L.A. Metro subway and light rail system will also soon get a better ride. High-speed rail funds will supply a key chunk of change to break ground on a Regional Connector Transit Corridor as early as next year. The two-mile track will connect the Gold Line to the Blue Line and the Expo Line. Katz says that will enable commuters to get to all major attractions on light rail.

“It makes it possible to go from one end of our system to the other end, seamlessly.” says Katz. “So you could go from Pasadena to Long Beach to the Aquarium. Or you can go from Santa Clarita or Palmdale to downtown Los Angeles to the Museum, Exposition Park, the County Museum.”

The expansion of Union Station, the commuter rail enhancements and the regional connector are some of the really, really big projects. Sharon Neely with the Southern California Association of Governments also negotiated for $500 million in high-speed funds for dozens of smaller projects throughout the region.

“We covered every agency between San Diego and the connection to the Central Valley for Southern California.” Neely says, “So everybody that needs to be a partner to this is a partner.”

Neely says her agency took care to pick projects that can break ground or at least be funded and ready for construction within eight years.

“We’ve estimated that if these improvements would be made, the idea was to save an hour travel time between San Diego and the connection to the Central Valley.”

Neely has a vested interest in improving the region’s transportation: her daily commute to work takes an hour and a half each way. If all the projects funded in high-speed rail bill get finished, all that money will have bought Neely, and a lot of other Southern Californians, a lot more free time.