Local News

Tuesday, Jan 14 2014 06:45 PM

High-speed rail agency rejects idea of bypassing downtown Bakersfield

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    By California High Speed Rail Authority

    An artist's conception of the bullet train speeding under the Tehachapi Pass.

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BY JOHN COX AND THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writers jcox@bakersfield.com and tdouglas@bakersfield.com

A proposed high-speed rail route bypassing central Bakersfield to the west instead of crossing through downtown was quietly rejected late last year by project officials.

The CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Jeff Morales, said in an interview Tuesday that the bypass alignment now is "not under active consideration."

He would not discuss the proposal in detail or say why the rail authority rejected it in favor of the current plan to cross downtown. The agency declined to provide a copy of the proposal.

News of the proposal's rejection disappointed Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy and transportation planners at the Kern Council of Governments.

Both had asked last year that the rail authority delay a decision on how the project would pass through Bakersfield, noting that the agency does not have enough money to lay tracks south of 7th Standard Road.

The rail authority has countered that federal guidelines require it to plan segments that link train stations in metropolitan areas.

Kern COG had discussed different alternatives to avoid the disruption a downtown path would cause. Although it never gave the rail authority a proposed route map, one of the agency's ideas involved running tracks along the city's west side over open land already earmarked for future transportation projects.

Executive Director Ahron Hakimi said the idea was to swing south of the metropolitan area, then turn north to join eastbound Highway 58 toward Tehachapi and, ultimately, Palmdale, where the rail authority wants to build another station. He said this would have allowed for a station somewhere in Bakersfield.

"If they have looked at (that proposal), they haven't consulted with us in detail, certainly, what they're doing," he said. "We would've welcomed a chance to be part of that analysis."

In November, the rail authority opted to proceed with a staff-recommended alignment that follows the BNSF Railway and parts of Truxtun Avenue to the existing Amtrak station downtown. That route, which is now being scrutinized by federal regulators, will be sent back to the rail board for final approval this spring.

"If we have credible, third-party proposals from elected officials or governmental agencies, somebody takes the time to put together a proposal, I think we have a responsibility to take a look," said Morales, the rail authority's CEO.

But, he added, "it does not change what we're doing" on the project's Fresno-to-Bakersfield section.

In interviews Monday and Tuesday, Tandy said he was unaware a bypass study actually existed, despite repeated conversations with high-speed rail officials about the city's desire that the alignment not go through downtown.

Tandy pointed out that rail officials can't alter the existing Bakersfield to Palmdale alignment through downtown without redoing their environmental analysis to reflect the changes.

"It's not the kind of thing where you can have one line drawn on a map and say that was going to be it," Tandy said. "Restarting the environmental analysis, going through different alternates, was what we were requesting."

Morales noted that there are people in Bakersfield who support bringing the project through downtown because of its economic benefits.

He added that his agency is open to local suggestions on where the train should run. But at this point, he said, they should pertain to how to "straighten" the route from Bakersfield to Palmdale.

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