Bullet train progress discussed in Bakersfield

Bullet train progress discussed in Bakersfield »Play Video
This concept drawing shows California's proposed bullet train moving through the Central Valley. (Rendering from the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Newlands & Company Inc.)
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Plans for where the first bullet trains could run in California were discussed in Bakersfield when the California High Speed Rail Authority held its monthly meeting in Kern County.

Under discussion, the first places where passengers could actually ride the fast trains, and how the environmental review for the Central Valley will be handled.

"We're supportive of high speed trains in California," Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall told Eyewitness News. "I think the residents of Bakersfield are as well."

It's not clear yet exactly where the new bullet train track would run in Bakersfield. At the open house in the County Administrative Center before the board meeting, posters and maps were set up. People looked over the materials, and the HSR authority had spokesmen there to answer questions.

Maps on the Bakersfield area show two possible routes and a couple options for bullet train stations. "We want to hear from the community," HSR spokeswoman Rachel Wall said. "We want to hear feed-back, and we'll respond to every comment on the track and where the alignment will go."

She said more information will be available when the draft environmental impact reports come out. That's expected in early August, and by the end of the daylong session, the authority had voted to hold public workshops and five formal workshops on the EIR.

While the first segment of track is set to be built from south of Merced to Bakersfield, on Thursday the authority had its first discussion of where passengers could use the proposed bullet train.

"We're talking about how much more do we need to extend that track to operate passenger service," Wall explained. The three options are now San Jose to Bakersfield, Merced to the San Fernando Valley, or Merced to Palmdale.

Getting the high speed rail to Palmdale is a very big deal. A full bus of Antelope Valley residents showed up at the HSR session, and they had a line of speakers pleading their case. They're worried about plans to study a route over the Grapevine, instead of swinging the route to Los Angeles their way.

"The Antelope Valley is a place where economic growth is already occurring," Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford told Eyewitness News. "Where people actually live. And, we represent 10 percent of that ridership in the Antelope Valley. Very important if you're going to pay for the system."

Ledford said his community has filed a lawsuit, hoping to stop even a study of the Grapevine route between the Central Valley and Los Angeles. "Certainly we believe there's less tunneling, less cost, and would be a place that'll serve the population," he argued.

Concerned residents from Kings County were also on hand to complain current plans for high speed track will eat into prime farm land.

"We feel they're not taking into account our community," Laura Crawford told Eyewitness News. She said the present plans would have serious impacts on agricultural areas, and then miss important communities.

"Misses the city of Hanford," Crawford said. "And there's no stations scheduled, unless the cities of Hanford or Visalia pay for it."

The HSR plan calls for eventually 800 miles of track, with trains running at up to 220 miles an hour. The first segment is set to be in the Central Valley.

"The Central Valley is key to this project," HSR spokeswoman Rachel Wall said. "We're building the backbone of the state High Speed Rail system here."

First actual construction is now slated for 2012. The first phase, San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim, is projected to cost $43 billion. Funds come from a state bond, federal money, and public-private partnerships.

Critics argue the HSR doesn't have a solid business plan, cost estimates or reliable projections on ridership.

Mayor Hall says getting the bullet train will be progress and good news for the local economy, starting with a lot of jobs. "We have an unemployment factor of nearly 12 percent," he told the HSR authority.

Hall thinks there's a lot of support in Kern County for the bullet train, and good chances for its success.

"Presently the Amtrak system in California is seeing record numbers (of passengers)," he said. "And if we're having it on the regular system, who can say we're not going to have the same success when it comes to high speed trains?"