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September 22, 2018

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If not XpressWest, officials wonder if Metrolink could be Palmdale-Victorville connection

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Nick Ut / AP

Passengers wait to board a Metrolink train at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015.

VICTORVILLE, Calif. — The joint powers authority at the helm of a bold multimodal transportation link between the Victor and Antelope valleys has most recently been studying extending Metrolink service from Palmdale to the region here.

In this scenario, which would appear to be only at the earliest stages of vetting, stations would be built in Adelanto and Victorville, according to Ryan McEachron, the special projects coordinator for the High Desert Corridor.

"We already have the demand for Metrolink here, but we've never been able to bring it here because of traversing the Cajon Pass," McEachron said. "One, you've got to be able to deal with BNSF and they don't want to give up any of their rail and, secondly, the grade coming up the Cajon Pass would make that train ride too long to make sense."

But expanding the regional passenger rail system atop the flat terrain between the Victor and Antelope valleys is more viable, he said, enabling trains to reach top speeds of more than 100 mph.

The exploration of the Metrolink option comes as groundwork continues on the deeply ambitious 63-mile connection between the two adjacent valleys with a toll freeway planned up to four lanes in each direction.

Arguably the most alluring component to the corridor is a privately funded high-speed rail by developer XpressWest that would bridge Las Vegas and Victorville, and later Los Angeles. The project also calls for an XpressWest extension between Victorville and Palmdale and the rail figures to ultimately connect to Gov. Jerry Brown's hallmark bullet train.

Yet with Metrolink already in existence from L.A. through Santa Clarita and into Palmdale, corridor officials are at least intrigued by its potential to enter into the Victor Valley too.

While McEachron did not offer further details into that strategy, he did tell a small crowd at the Victor Valley Rotary Club last week of the corridor's general overall progress.

"I mean this would be a huge benefit obviously to the Victor Valley, just from a construction job standpoint," he said, "but long term the development that would occur in and around the corridor on this end as you get closer to the 15 freeway would be huge."

The entire 63 miles is being mapped out as officials identify owners of private property between the two valleys that must be secured as part of right-of-way acquisition efforts. McEachron said it's largely open land with few homes and businesses.

As integral to acquisition will be preserving the right of way through General Plans of each entity represented along the corridor, including San Bernardino and L.A. counties and the cities of Victorville, Adelanto and Palmdale.

Officials are also involved in trying to obtain a record of decision from the Federal Railroad Administration, which would enable them to move ahead with building the rail component.

The environmental impact report is already completed — having cost $30 million over five years, a sliver of the project's estimated $8 billion price tag. But at least one environmental group has sued to block the project, contending the freeway will destroy remaining habitat and open space, generate more traffic and pollution and strain fragile water supply as anticipated new developments are erected.

A ridership study focused on the XpressWest venture projected $1.6 billion in revenue on competitive fares amid 14 million roundtrips by 2050, which McEachron said was indicative that high-speed rail can turn a profit.

With fewer motorists on the road, he added, traffic congestion and gas emissions would also be reduced.

He drew the distinction between the private endeavor — which is seeking a government loan to start — and the governor's voter-approved rail system that is billions of dollars over budget and roiled by political discord. The suggestion is, one does not rely on the other.

For the corridor project as a whole, officials have initiated talks with experienced private sector firms in Spain, Canada and England, "but nothing (is) concrete at this time," McEachron said.

The involvement of the private sector has been positioned as essential to the corridor's survival by political leaders who support it and McEachron said federal money would be leveraged to entice such investment.

"I will tell you that High Desert Corridor, the actual highway, will not be built," McEachron said, "unless there is private sector at the table and they are participating in a big way."

Officials recently applied for a $1 billion state grant and additional funding options include tax increment financing districts, half-cent sales tax measures like M in L.A. County and I in San Bernardino County and the possibility of infrastructure money flowing through a proposed Trump administration package, although it's unlikely to pass this year.

McEachron said the corridor could also receive funds through rail-access fees and leasing the rights to rail built between Palmdale and Victorville to Metrolink, XpressWest or whoever might use it.

He said Nevada had been engaged to consider a partnership agreement due to the large benefit the state would receive from a bigger outpouring of traffic.

Measure M, the half-cent sales tax for infrastructure approved by L.A. County voters in 2016, is expected to kick in $170 million for the project.

Unlike this county's Measure I, Measure M does not sunset and McEachron hinted that officials here could push for a similar perpetuity tax in 2020 or to at least extend Measure I beyond its 2040 expiration.

McEachron, who was hired by the eight-member joint powers authority last fall — an appointment scrutinized by some — to act as an inter-governmental relations advocate, also announced he will be stepping down at the end of March, which is three months before his contract is up.

He attributed wanting to spend more time with his family and the pressures of running his own insurance business as the reasons behind the exit, saying whoever next takes the torch will likely be required to pledge a full-time commitment.