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By California High Speed Rail Authority
BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer email@example.com
A surge in recent oil investment near Shafter has prompted a substantial redrawing of the proposed high-speed rail project through northern Kern County.
A recommended alignment unveiled Thursday proposes laying tracks near the BNSF Railroad through Shafter and Wasco -- a reversal of a never-adopted April plan that avoided those cities' centers.
The new proposed alignment, set for a vote Thursday by the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority in Sacramento, has won qualified support from the city of Shafter and tentative agreement from Wasco officials, though both cities generally oppose the project because of its expected disruptive effect on farming.
Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy, concerned about the disruption the project would cause downtown, has asked rail authority officials to delay a route decision south of 7th Standard Road until the agency has enough money to build all the way to Bakersfield.
The compromise offered Thursday by the rail authority was that it would request construction permits no farther south than 7th Standard, meaning it would not begin acquiring Bakersfield property to build on until late 2014 or 2015.
A bullet train spokeswoman said reviews by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers require it to chart a route from one rail terminus to the next, ruling out the possibility that the project would end at 7th Standard, roughly eight miles north of Bakersfield.
Both federal agencies must approve the proposed route.
Rail authority spokesman Lisa Alley said there remains time to work with Bakersfield on a mutually agreeable plan.
"There's always going to be room to work with our stakeholders and the city of Bakersfield," she said.
The recommended route through Bakersfield remains unchanged from April, avoiding Bakersfield High School and Bethel Christian School, and requiring the removal of fewer churches and homes than any other alternative under consideration.
But it would still call for demolition of the 174-bed Bakersfield Homeless Center on East Truxtun Avenue, as well as new housing proposed at Mill Creek, parking for the downtown convention center and other properties.
The real changes introduced Thursday to the project's Kern County portion related to Shafter and Wasco.
Those adjustments were made largely to accommodate recent oil drilling activity in the area, according to the rail authority.
Shafter Assistant City Manager Scott Hurlbert explained that the rail authority's April proposal failed to take into account recent investments in oil production as well as increasing development at the city's economic hub, the Paramount Logistics Park.
The April plan would have had a heavier impact on both of those, he said.
"There has been a significant amount of oil development in and around Shafter and Wasco in the last year and a half, primarily thru Vintage (Petroleum LLC)'s holdings here," Hurlbert said, "and I think that infrastructure was more extensive and more expensive than the rail authority had originally believed."
Vintage declined to comment, and representatives of the Paramount Logistics Park could not be reached for comment.
Wasco city officials could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in an Oct. 25 interview, City Manager Dan Allen said the city preferred the April plan that would have veered away from the BNSF tracks versus any proposal running the project through the center of town.
He did mention, however, that negotiations could make a route through town more agreeable.
"There's a way to accommodate us, but the mitigations that the city has proposed, (the project officials) would have to be amicable to," Allen said.
Alley, the project spokeswoman, was unfamiliar with the exact mitigation measures under consideration, but said they would involve things such as avoiding residential development.
She said noted that the April proposal for the Kern County route would have had a total price tag of $6.8 billion; the more recent recommendation's estimate is $7.2 billion.
The overall 520-mile route linking the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area is expected to cost $68.5 billion and use trains traveling as fast as 220 mph. The first operational segment, from Madera to the San Fernando Valley, is projected to become operational by 2022. The project's proposed completion date is 2029.