High-speed Rail

Tuesday, Feb 07 2012 07:08 PM

Supervisors vote 3-2 to oppose high-speed rail

BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

A divided Kern County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to oppose the California high-speed rail project in its current form, following the lead of other local governments.

The vote was 3-2 with Supervisors Karen Goh and Ray Watson going against their colleagues.

Project proponents had lobbied the supervisors to delay a decision until a final draft of the system's financial plan -- which would incorporate their concerns -- was completed and made public.

"Under any scenario, under any set of plans, the population of this state is going to grow -- from 30 million to 60 million by the middle of the century," argued High-Speed Rail Authority spokesman Lance Simmens, "

He said the revised plan is nearly ready.

"You compound the difficulty when you make decisions on partial information," Simmens said.

But Supervisors Mike Maggard and Zack Scrivner came out sharply opposed to the current state of the project.

Maggard said that after looking at what was before him, he can't support the project given its potential community impact and the lack of good answers to serious questions about its viability.

"My answer today, based on this draft, is I don't support it," Maggard said. When the new draft comes out, "I hope it will be successful."

Project opponents hammered on the questionable methodology, finances and ridership numbers that have troubled the high-speed rail planning process.

Supporters touted the jobs, environmental benefits and visionary future high-speed rail would offer California.

Watson voted against Maggard's motion, saying he doesn't think the Kern County Board of Supervisors should be conducting votes just for public relations purposes.

"If we take a vote today, what does that mean?" he said. "The (environmental) process is going to proceed no matter what we do."

Watson said he's been involved with California's high-speed rail plan for 20 years and believes it is needed for the long-term health of the state.

He said the California High-Speed Rail Authority's less-than-elegant delivery of its draft plans has created a credibility problem.

"The draft business plan came out in late 2011. As soon as that thing hit the street, there was a huge number of concerns all up and down the alignment," Watson said.

But until there is a final draft, and the Authority has a chance to address the community's very valid concerns, Watson said supervisors need to hold their decision.

"It is too important for Kern County to have a variety of transportation systems it can rely on for its growth," he said.

John Spaulding of the Building Trades Council said the project will create critical jobs in the building industry, where unemployment hovers around 30 percent.

"We start high-speed rail right now or we let other states take our high-speed rail money and our jobs," Spaulding said.

But Dr. Girish Patel called the High-Speed Rail Authority's ridership estimates overblown and "crazy." He said the creation of high-speed rail jobs would cost other people their jobs because high-speed rail would drain government coffers.

Frank Oliveira of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability said the trains would tear up the Kern County community and economy.

"A bad plan on a good idea is still a bad plan," he said.

Howard Silver, a local transportation advocate, said major transportation projects take some faith and commitment to the future from the state and its people.

When Interstate 5 was constructed, he said, the first four-lane section was started at the Grapevine and took 19 years to get to Sacramento.

Without high-speed rail, he said, the federal government would need to raise taxes to maintain the system of roads required to accommodate future transportation needs.

And, he said, a vote against the project would "hand the heavy maintenance facility to Fresno on a silver platter."

Maggard disputed that, saying there is no hope the facility will be built here, despite the fact it's the best place for it.

The San Joaquin Valley segment of high-speed rail will be built, Maggard said. Construction will start near Madera and the maintenance yard, and its large pool of good-paying jobs, will be built on the north end of the segment.

The Bakersfield City Council also recently voted to oppose the project in its current form.

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