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California Bullet Train Drives Into New Controversy

Another controversy has engulfed the proposed bullet train, this time about the plans to move its tracks closer to Bakersfield.

(TNS) -- The state agency in charge of California’s controversial $68 billion bullet train held its second workshop Thursday to inform residents about a new route through Bakersfield being studied, but several business leaders and a transportation researcher present said the project deserves even closer scrutiny.

The bullet train’s path through Bakersfield hasn’t officially changed yet, but the California High-Speed Rail Authority agreed 11 months ago to study a new way through the city to settle a lawsuit from Bakersfield.

The new route, first thought of by Bakersfield city officials, would bring the train into the city near 7th Standard and Coffee roads and follow Union Pacific tracks to a station at F Street and Golden State Avenue.

This alignment would potentially take as many as a third of the 4,500 houses planned for Shafter’s Gossamer Grove housing development, and could also jeopardize a future transportation beltway.

In Bakersfield, though, the train’s journey would be about 6 1/2 miles shorter, would take around 140 land parcels in comparison with the 541 parcels needed for the currently selected hybrid alignment, and its elevated portions would be about 30 feet lower.

Bakersfield officials like the new alignment for all these reasons, and City Manager Alan Tandy praised the CHSRA for “not only complying with the letter of the settlement agreement but the spirit” in meeting with potentially affected property owners this year.

But members of the Downtown Business Association and the Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government said they’re still not certain the new route and the F Street station are right for Bakersfield.

Lauren Skidmore, director of policy and community affairs for Kern Citizens, which promotes sustainable economic, fiscal and public policies, said the group is very concerned whichever alignment is chosen gives Kern County the best chance to land a heavy maintenance facility for the bullet train.

“There needs to be a little more transparency here,” Skidmore said. “There’s a lot of assumptions and there’s a lot of concerns and I don’t think community meetings like this, where you have high levels of technology and little opportunity for public engagement, that those assumptions and those concerns are being answered.

City officials have said the new alignment wouldn’t affect Kern’s chances to land the heavy maintenance facility.

Cathy Butler, DBA president, said earlier this week she and other members still had questions about the new route and station.

”I want to make sure it’s going to be best for the heart of the city and I hope that whatever happens we come together, because the high-speed rail is ultimately going to be picking the site and if they (see) we’re divided will it happen?“ Butler said.

Thursday’s meeting drew around 130 people, fewer than half the number of the previous workshop in August that drew nearly 300.

The format, though, was much the same, with residents able to view renderings on flatscreen monitors of how the train will look on the conceptual alignment as it comes through Bakersfield, to look at maps and see how close it comes to their own properties.

Adam Cohen, a research associate in transportation sustainability with the University of California who lives in Bakersfield, pronounced the meeting ”more of the same.“ Like Skidmore, he said rather than airing their concerns individually to CHSRA officials, the evening would have benefitted from ”open mike“ questions and answers.

Cohen dislikes the F Street station because he believes it is too far from downtown and the existing Amtrak station, and criticizes Bakersfield for not doing enough outreach before revealing the new proposed train route last December.

”That’s what tonight is about, that’s what the previous meeting was about. We brought it forward as soon as we got a nibble on high-speed rail being interested,“ said Tandy, noting an F Street station could connect to the Amtrak station via shuttles and would still be a powerful economic engine.

”It would be a vast number of people coming in and out, potential for residential, commuters from LA, to live in the vicinity, commercial support for the people taking the train in,“ Tandy said.

Not all voices of dissent came from Bakersfield. Kings County farmers Frank Oliveira and Ross Browning of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability drove down to learn more about, among other things, whether their county or Bakersfield will have to pay for their respective bullet train stations. (They won’t.)

Oliveira said the train will cut off about his access to about 150 acres of his land, which he’ll no longer be able to farm.

”How is the chicken going to get to the other side of the road and what are they going to do about paying for those damages?“ Oliveira said. ”What we’ve seen on those appraisals is about a 25 percent value.“

Diana Gomez, CHSRA’s Central Valley regional director, said the agency is paying fair market value.

”We’ve been adjusting our appraisals based on what the market is doing. Each farmer, of course has a different idea of what their farm is worth,“ Gomez said.

Not everyone who attended thought the train was bad news.

Northwest resident Tina Gerber said she and husband James live within about a mile of the proposed new alignment and are already contemplating using it to travel.

”I’m excited,“ Tina Gerber said. ”I definitely see this as a redevelopment opportunity for Bakersfield. I think Bakersfield would be remiss in letting it go by.“

©2015 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.