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Monday, Jan 14 2013 11:00 PM

Suddenly, HSR seems to be solidly on track

By The Bakersfield Californian

California high-speed rail has always been saddled with a vague aura of unlikelihood rooted in its quasi-sci-fi technology, a competing and persistent culture of automobility and the rail system's staggering price tag.

But with the controversial project scheduled to actually break ground this year just north of Fresno, it seems increasingly prudent for skeptics and nonbelievers -- especially those in local government -- to shift away from their present stance. The shrewd approach at this point would be to seek out ways to leverage Kern County's position in ongoing developments to the region's best advantage.

That means our Bakersfield and Kern County governments, which over the years have both officially endorsed and opposed the project, ought to acknowledge which way the wind now blows and drop their collective public facade -- that of surly bystander. Doing so encourages the High-Speed Rail Authority to view regional governments as partners rather than ostensibly neutral obstacles and theoretically gives local interests a little more say in unresolved issues such as route alignments, the locations of stops and private contracting considerations.

Why should we believe that high-speed rail is still on track? The evidence is scattered and anecdotal, but recent developments include:

* Surging demand for Bay Area Rapid Transit that has Northern California officials concerned about inadequate capacity and aging infrastructure. The recovering economy, volatile gas prices and an increase in environmental awareness are all factors in the huge uptick in demand for seats on BART -- about three times what officials anticipated. "We could be looking at half a million riders a day in five years and three-quarters of a million a day a decade after," Paul Oversier, BART's assistant general manager of operations, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Yes, unlike HSR, BART is normal-speed commuter rail with routes that don't exceed an hour of one-way travel time (and are usually much shorter), but acceptance of rail is acceptance of rail. And HSR will eventually tie in with metro rail systems like BART, so growing enthusiasm and demand for those regional partners portends success when everything is eventually joined decades from now.

* The state's Public Works Board has cleared the way for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to start negotiating with property owners in Fresno and Madera counties to buy land for the system's first tracks.

"By enabling us to begin making offers to landowners for their property we are on our way to starting construction this summer," Jeff Morales, CEO of the rail authority, told The Fresno Bee on Monday. The authority will need to purchase about 130 parcels this year.

* California seems to have almost fully emerged from the recession that so imperiled the state over the past three years. On Monday the state Legislative Analyst's Office gave Gov. Jerry Brown's relatively rosy budget its stamp of approval -- or, more specifically, its stamp of realism. California is by no means out of the woods and many will convincingly argue that the state still cannot afford such an expensive gamble, but we're in better shape to proceed with this project than most could've imagined.

Taken together, HSR is still far from a sure thing. But the winds are changing, and Kern County would be wise to adjust its sails.

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