Lois Henry

Tuesday, Dec 18 2012 09:52 PM

Don't stop the bullet train but slow it down

By Lois Henry

A kind of "time out" was proposed last week as a way to forestall lawsuits and rethink options on the proposed high-speed rail route into and through Bakersfield.

It's a smart, reasonable approach. And, full disclosure, as a property owner directly in the path of the bullet train, it would give me and a lot of other people a whole lot more certainty.

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The time-out idea has been broached before but by all accounts it seemed to gain traction at a meeting in Bakersfield last week between California High Speed Rail Authority representatives, several local agencies, large landowners and community groups.

The idea is simple really, though it would involve a degree of open communication by the authority that we haven't seen a lot of so far.

The authority would have to acknowledge that it only has enough money to build the line from south of Fresno to somewhere north of Bakersfield (authority reps claimed they could get all the way to Shafter, but I have my doubts).

Since there is no more money in the foreseeable future, the authority would agree to take the Bakersfield alignment out of its current environmental impact report.

The authority could certify the rest of the EIR and go forward with that part only.

Once it got to the end of its money, say Pixley or wherever, the authority would route the bullet train onto existing Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe tracks into and through Bakersfield.

The authority would have a workable track, albeit not high speed, while it waited for more money to magically appear, which could take five or 10 years, or even decades.

Meanwhile, the time-out would give the authority, city and other groups time to come up with a more amenable alignment and avoid lawsuits. Court action is almost certain if the pending EIR is certified with its current proposed route cutting through downtown Bakersfield on an 80-foot elevated track in some places.

Most importantly, a time-out for property owners would mean we wouldn't have a certified EIR looming over our heads making it impossible to sell our homes or businesses for any decent money and with no prospect of the state buying us out either.

"Why select a route and set it in stone when you don't know when, or even if, you'll have the money to go all the way into Bakersfield?" asked Ahron Hakimi, director of the Kern Council of Governments, which oversees transportation projects in Kern. Hakimi was the one who brought up the time-out at last week's meeting.

Like I said, it seems smart and reasonable to me. But word from Authority CEO Jeff Morales wasn't encouraging.

"We have been evaluating the proposal, which was discussed at last week's meeting, since the time it was originally made by state Sen. Michael Rubio earlier in the year and we will be conferring with our federal partners who will need to concur with a change of this nature," Morales wrote in an email.

They've allegedly been evaluating it since "earlier in the year" and still haven't talked to the feds about it? Come on!

I smell foot dragging, which has been the authority's M.O. for years, according to my city sources.

That may be why, I'm told, Bakersfield representatives at last week's meeting insisted they needed an answer on the time-out in two weeks (well, now only one week). I'm betting that's because the city needs to be ready with a lawsuit given that the current EIR is likely to be certified in early springtime.

Planning by politics and lawsuit, the California way.

Anyhow, Hakimi noted the time-out idea has even more benefits.

In its long-term vision for Amtrak, Caltrans is looking at the possibility of adding a second or third track along the BNSF line, which has room in its existing right of way. That means another set of tracks could be built without knocking down a bunch of houses.

And that portion of the BNSF line has been a bottleneck for years.

"We're adding more freight, we know that. Having Amtrak share a single track with freight is crazy. It should have been corrected decades ago," Hakimi said.

Increasing capacity on the BNSF half would allow more freight, more Amtrak service and yes, the extra tracks could even be used by the bullet train.

Jeff Taylor, head of the Save Bakersfield Committee, which flatly opposes high-speed rail in its current form, liked Hakimi's time-out, saying if the authority insists on coming through Bakersfield, they should take the time to plan it the right way and go around the city rather than through its heart.

"But what would happen if they said this was a reasonable request?" he wondered. "They'd basically be admitting to the fact that it was poorly planned. And what would that say about the rest of their plan, which also sucks?"

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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