High-speed Rail

Tuesday, Apr 02 2013 11:00 PM

Bullet train draws a bull's eye on downtown Bakersfield

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

California High Speed Rail officials have released a preliminary track alignment through Bakersfield that would steer clear of several notable local sites but would require the bulldozing of others.

Properties and areas that would be largely spared include Bakersfield High School, several local churches and central Shafter and Wasco. But a homeless shelter and other assets might have to be removed and tracks would be built across some farmland, according to a preliminary recommendation released Tuesday to The Californian.

Initial reaction here was not positive.

The bullet train staff proposal -- essentially a preferred set of alternatives that have been on the table for at least a year -- is scheduled to be presented as an informational item at a Thursday meeting of the rail authority in Fresno. A vote on what route alternatives to adopt is expected next month.

In a memo accompanying the selections, authority staff stated that they want to continue working with stakeholders in Bakersfield, Shafter and Wasco "to identify the most appropriate (train) alignment" between Wasco and downtown Bakersfield.

City managers of the three cities rejected the preliminary alignment in phone interviews Tuesday, even as they said none of the alternatives proposed was ideal.

"I don't think there is a winner here," Shafter City Manager John Guinn said. "But at the same time, ... if we're going to have to pick, you have to pick the route that has the least impact on you."

He said the rail authority staff's recommendation to avoid central Shafter, if approved, would damage the city's oil, industrial and farming economy more than if the route went through the urban center.

Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy and the Kern Council of Governments had argued in favor of delaying a decision on route alternatives through the county. Noting that there is no money to build the project's initial phase all the way south from Merced to Bakersfield anyway, they proposed a tentative alignment following the existing BNSF railroad. That would leave options open but avoid placing a stigma on properties that would be affected by any final alignment.

"Why cast a shadow over all those property values?" Tandy asked. He added that all three alignments through downtown Bakersfield are "as far as I know, unacceptable to the community."

Kern COG's executive director, Ahron Hakimi, said he was encouraged by the rail authority's offer to continue working with the three Kern County cities, and that he expects to do just that in a meeting with the agency's top staff next week.

Still, Hakimi insisted that the wiser decision would be for the rail authority to wait before selecting the final route.

"I'm not in favor of selecting a route -- any route -- that comes into Bakersfield if you don't have the finances to build that route," he said.

Wasco city manager Dan Allen noted that the City Council has passed a resolution opposed to the project. "But we will work with the high-speed rail (authority) to, you know, assist in whatever route that they take," he said.

"I don't think we have a lot of choice on the route that they take," he added.

The Kern County route preferences were among a larger set of preliminary selections scheduled to be presented Thursday. These would veer from the BNSF at several points, including bypassing Hanford to the west and Corcoran to the east.

The rail authority memo states that the preliminary preferred alignment is the least expensive of any set of proposed alternatives. It would cost about $800 million less than a route that more closely followed the BNSF.

The options recommended by staff would also add one minute of train travel time between Fresno and Bakersfield, and add another minute to the segment between Bakersfield and Palmdale.

The rail authority's alignment alternatives for Bakersfield have raised considerable concern locally. One option would require demolition of a building at Bakersfield High. Churches and businesses would also be negatively impacted by different scenarios, as would city-owned facilities.

In late 2011, the rail authority proposed a new option that staff said would lessen the impact on the city. But that "hybrid" route also caused concern because it would run through 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.

A spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital said the preliminary alignment released Tuesdday would affect the medical center; she did not elaborate.

The high-speed rail proposal, estimated to cost $68.5 billion, is planned to connect Anaheim with the Bay Area by 2035 with trains traveling up to 220 mph.

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