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By CAROL BENDER
In the Aug. 17 Our View ("Train hot ticket in Northeast; why not here?"), The Californian asked us to rethink high-speed rail. I think we can all agree on what the editorial calls "high speed rail's potential here in California." However, trying to make this current plan and its destructive alignment through the Central Valley any sort of equivalent to the Acela Express in the Northeast is a huge stretch. Even ridership will be different in a less dense California, where travel is minimally affected by inclement weather and connecting transit systems are less available.
The Central Valley would be thrilled to see Amtrak expand. Grade separations and a faster train like the Amtrak's Acela sound interesting. The Acela averages 85 mph, but is capable of the 150 mph speed allowable on shared track. Other alternatives could improve our current Amtrak system without costing taxpayers well over $100 billion. At a time when our state is in fiscal crisis, we do not need to invest in a plan for a 220-mph train that bisects cities and destroys farmland.
The first phase delivers only a set of unelectrified track. There is the real possibility that funding may not be found to ever connect Bakersfield to Palmdale. We will have torn up the valley for what? A trip to Fresno that is 40 minutes shorter? People need to know that there will be no electrification or high-speed train, and that the plan is to put our Amtrak line on the new, approximately 130-mile segment, skipping the current Wasco, Corcoran and Hanford stations. Our lower-cost regional rail is on the chopping block.
A year ago, The Californian published an editorial clearly voicing strong support of the currently proposed high-speed rail project. Since that time, the paper has failed to fully investigate the local impacts that continue to mount despite the fact that the Kern County supervisors, Bakersfield City Council and other communities in the valley have publicly opposed the project as currently proposed. In fact, Bakersfield sent a 100-plus-page response to the California High-Speed Rail Authority voicing leaders' objections and concerns that were supposed to have been addressed in the new draft environmental impact report. They asked for an alternative alignment to be studied that wouldn't plow through downtown at track heights of up to 80 feet. The HSR Authority did not comply.
The BNSF Railway alternative through Bakersfield creates severe noise impacts for 2,585 residences and moderate impacts for 5,940 residences (that doesn't address churches, businesses and schools). Compare Fresno's impacts: 20 severe and 201 moderate impacts. The plan is to mitigate just for those that are severely impacted -- but only if it is "reasonable." If sound walls are cost-prohibitive, people will be given money to compensate for their misery, and be provided with "sound insulation." There is no specific mitigation for moderate impacts effecting residences up to 2,500 feet away.
To be fair to The Californian, I can appreciate the fact that staffing is limited. Printing articles and editorials from other news services and allowing opposition to speak in the Community Voices and Another View features is a good thing. But here's the rub: Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned, but I still remember a time when local papers left no stone unturned to report and warn citizens of threats to their community -- to thoroughly do their own investigations with the goal of protecting the culture and quality of life its fellow readers enjoy. You know --sound the alarm!
The Californian missed the opportunity last week to put a notice in the paper on the days the HSR Authority conducted local open house presentations, so that citizens would be reminded of the importance of their attendance. There was no follow-up article informing us of what has changed since the last draft. There was no reporting of new local impacts.
It is easy to grasp the concept that a high-speed rail system is a good one under the right circumstances. The problem here is that these are not the right circumstances. This is not the right plan. Citizens need their hometown paper to investigate and report the fine details of local impacts and help them navigate through the red tape of the EIR process.
Carol Bender of Bakersfield, who has worked in the community as an RN/public health nurse, has been active in many local issues, including supervisorial redistricting, high school boundaries, transportation development and the residential-industrial interface. Another View presents a critical response to a previous editorial, column or news story.