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Monday, May 26 2014 03:00 PM

How the council changed course on bullet train

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The Bakersfield Municipal Services Corporation Yard, at 4101 Truxtun Ave., could be affected by the high-speed bullet train route that may go through Bakersfield.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    City worker Blaine Paregien, traffic painter III, shows off several of the mast arms that go on street signal ights that were manufactured in the Signs & Markings area of the Bakersfield Municipal Services Corporation Yard on Truxtun Avenue that may be affected by the high-speed bullet train proposed to go through Bakersfield.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The Bakersfield Municipal Services Corporation Yard on Truxtun Avenue is one of several city facilities threatened by the high-speed bullet train route.

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The Bakersfield Municipal Services Corporation Yard is one of several city facilities threatened by the high-speed bullet train route that is proposed to come through Bakersfield.

    click to expand click to collapse
  5. 5 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Blaine Paregien, traffic painter III, shows off some of the recent mast arms made in the city corporation yard.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

The city council that just voted to sue the high-speed rail authority to keep the bullet train out of downtown is the same council that once fought to bring it there.

What a difference 15 years makes.

In 1999, Mill Creek and the Padre Hotel were years from being revived but Truxtun Avenue was waking up.

With the city's financial help, a Holiday Inn Select had sprung from the rusty steel remains of the Clarion Hotel.

Centennial Garden still had that new arena smell, and the dream of high-speed rail promised to bring thousands of weary travelers and tourists flush with cash to a downtown that sorely needed them.

On June 30 of that year, the Bakersfield City Council unanimously approved Resolution No. 97-99 "supporting a downtown location for the high-speed rail station."

On a 7-0 vote, the council challenged the California High-Speed Rail Authority's recommendation to locate the station about seven miles west of downtown.

Among its 13 whereases, the resolution noted "a station located on the outskirts of town will have a negative impact on the City's uniform growth patterns ... " -- but a downtown station could be easily reached and "have greater accessibility to government and other public service facilities."

City Manager Alan Tandy told The Californian on July 16, 1999, that a staff member would carry that resolution north the following week.

"We, along with the DBA and the chamber, have endorsed a downtown station," Tandy said then.

The next week, then-Mayor Bob Price testified at an CHSRA meeting July 20-21, 1999.

Price told the CHSRA board he believed "downtown locations are key to the success of high-speed rail," according to meeting minutes.

"Once you enter any metropolitan area, you can't skip any of the other metropolitan areas," Price had told The Californian on July 16, 1999.

Today, council members, city staffers and business leaders wish the bullet train would miss downtown. This past Wednesday, the council voted 6-1 authorizing the city attorney to sue the rail agency.

IN THE CROSSHAIRS

The train will be elevated during much of its journey through Bakersfield, according to Planning Director Jim Eggert, who pointed out it will have to cross such landmarks as the Westside Parkway on its journey southeast to downtown.

The train's current alignment will cut through significant city and private properties including McMurtrey Aquatic Center, the city's Municipal Services Corporation Yard, Bakersfield High School, Bethel Christian School and Mill Creek.

From its intensive care units and operating rooms, doctors and nurses at Mercy Hospital downtown could one day be at eye level with bullet train ticketholders, according to CEO Bruce Peters.

"It is elevated at the height of our ICUs and our ORs," Peters said. "It will be 88 feet from our door. Eighty-eight feet is barely to the -- it's short of the 30-yard line on a football field. Can you imagine a train coming by at over 100 miles per hour, the noise, the vibration?"

Mercy officials have reached out to the rail authority "multiple times over the past couple months," Peters said and is waiting for a response.

CHSRA Deputy Director of Public Affairs Lisa Marie Alley said she believes the agency met with hospital officials last month.

CITY PROJECTS IN THE WAY

The train will still be elevated when it passes Mill Creek, the once-lowly irrigation canal that now features gardens, a park, and a real mill wheel.

The idea that one government entity can give and another can take away is what bothers City Attorney Ginny Gennaro.

"How is that possible that we could get that money and redevelop an area and then another project comes through that's being developed by the government and rips it out?" Gennaro asked. "To me, it is the epitome of government gone bad."

The bullet train will also impact Bakersfield High and parking at Rabobank Arena and McMurtrey Aquatic Center.

However, City Manager Alan Tandy said the city's Municipal Services Corporation Yard would be hardest hit. That's the well from whence all its "outside services" flow -- including street maintenance, fleet vehicles, trash trucks.

It would be difficult to find another place as large and centrally located, officials say.

"We told them, 'You can't touch it,' and they ran right over it," Tandy said. "That's one example among several of what turned them."

CHANGING OPINIONS

The "them" is the Bakersfield City Council, which voted to sue May 21. Gennaro said the city's lawsuit will be filed by June 6 and could cost $350,000 to $500,000.

It will challenge the rail agency's environmental report for the Fresno-Bakersfield route, approved May 7, which Tandy has said is deficient and badly prepared.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan was on the council in 1999 and is its only member to have voted both times.

She said 15 years ago, the bullet train was just a concept, one the council thought could help a struggling downtown.

Tandy agreed in a recent interview and said in 1999 the train wasn't funded and "was kind of a phantom."

With downtown reviving, Sullivan said, the council has changed its mind.

"We don't need it and now we don't want it," she said. "Things have changed and now we need to protect our downtown."

Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson said he's worried the state will fund the train on the backs of its cities.

"The fact that their funding issues continue to be a major issue -- the state is only going to have a number of opportunities to go and get that money, and those are going to be from local governments," Johnson said.

Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera cast the lone vote Wednesday against suing CHSRA. He said the rail agency needs to do a better job working with Bakersfield -- but questioned the council's selectiveness in spending money on transportation.

He supports the rail project but thinks the agency needs to do a better job communicating.

"When you consider that members of the Bakersfield City Council have had absolutely no problem allocating hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to build freeways, to then say connecting cities across the state with high-speed rail is not smart and doesn't make sense is a little inconsistent in my mind," RIvera said.

RAIL AGENCY'S RESPONSE

Alley, the rail agency spokeswoman, said exact details such as which properties would be affected would not have been available until the release of the project's draft EIR in 2011, and the revised draft the following year.

She said the rail agency met multiple times with Bakersfield officials before that to discuss "what things would look like," including where the train would be elevated and where it would be at-grade.

"I think that in any big project you're going to have controversy and adversity, but we're working through those one city at a time," Alley said. "I think it showed a lot that our board took action and passed the resolution as they did. I think that's another good thing that shows the commitment, that we're working together ... ."

The resolution, which the rail agency also approved May 7, said it will give Bakersfield at least 60 days notice before starting construction south of 7th Standard Road,

OTHER INTERESTED PARTIES

Retired city Treasurer Bill Descary addressed the council May 7 on the bullet train EIR and on May 20 asked the Kern County Board of Supervisors to consider filing its own CEQA lawsuit.

Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner said the county is still deciding what to do.

"It would be a very expensive endeavor, so we would want to make sure it was something that was likely to be successful," Goldner said, estimating a lawsuit's cost would be at least $350,000.

The county is already party to a lawsuit challenging the rail agency's issuance of bonds. Having lost, the CHSRA has appealed that case to the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento.

Another local agency, Bakersfield's Downtown Business Association, supports having a bullet train station downtown -- but Chairman Kevin Bartl said it's a difficult choice.

"In a perfect world, the downtown would be your ideal location, but that being said there's already structures here. There's not vast tracts of open land," Bartl said. "We would like that seriously to be downtown, but we think there has to be a plan to make up for the work that's going to be done and what it's going to take out."

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