Local News

Thursday, Nov 07 2013 06:02 PM

Rail board approves bullet train route from Fresno to 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 Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Recently unveiled route changes for high-speed rail between Fresno and Bakersfield won approval Thursday by the project's governing board.

The unanimous vote, which the board's chairman emphasized is not final, was supported by Shafter and Wasco farmers but opposed by Bakersfield representatives unhappy with the proposed alignment through downtown.

Pre-vote public comment near the start of the Sacramento meeting included a veiled threat by a lawyer for the company behind the Bakersfield Commons mixed-use development proposal at Coffee and Brimhall roads, which would lose roughly a sixth of its property under the latest version of the rail alignment.

If the board doesn't reconsider other route alternatives through Bakersfield, "the decision will be vulnerable to legal challenge," said Benjamin Hanelin, an attorney for the project's owner, World Oil, and its local development entity, Coffee-Brimhall LLC.

Bakersfield City Councilman Terry Maxwell made a trip to the capital to speak against the proposed route through town.

For the sake of Bakersfield residents whose lives would be disrupted by the project, he asked California High-Speed Rail Authority board members to locate the project's Bakersfield station east of the proposed location at the Amtrak terminal on Truxtun Avenue.

"I fear if we do put that station in the downtown area, it will have a tremendous amount of failure because it is not placed in the right area," he said.

Two people who spoke on behalf of the Wasco-Shafter Ag Group were far more complimentary. Their concerns had been addressed when the rail authority released a revised, staff-recommended route last week that closely followed the BNSF Railroad through Wasco and Shafter rather than veer deeper into nearby farmland and the Paramount Logistics Park, Shafter's busy industrial center.

According to the rail authority, the BNSF alternative was also deemed a better route largely because it avoided cutting through busy oilfields in the Shafter area. Staff have indicated that buying productive oil property to make way for the bullet train could have been very expensive.

The agency's oil-related compromise irked government representatives from Kings County. One of them, County Counsel Colleen Carlson, noted that Kings farmers had requested accommodations similar to what Shafter received.

"And yet you are willing to accommodate big oil and Shafter. That's irony," Carlson said.

While Shafter has long preferred an alignment along the BNSF, Wasco was less enthusiastic because it would displace residents in the center of town.

But a deal was recently worked out in which the agency would pay to move farmworker housing out of the project's way.

The proposed route now heads to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency before returning for another board review next spring.

Board Chairman Dan Richard reminded the audience that the board may yet change the route between Fresno and Bakersfield.

"I want to emphasize that," he said.

The 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.

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