High Speed Rail Should Stay in Central Bakersfield
By Robert Cruickshank
Some Bakersfield residents, opposed to the current plan to bring bullet trains into central Bakersfield, are arguing for pause on the EIR for that portion of the route. Their argument is that the planning is flawed – but they’re only saying that because they just don’t want a downtown train station:
A kind of “time out” was proposed last week as a way to forestall lawsuits and rethink options on the proposed high-speed rail route into and through Bakersfield.
The authority would have to acknowledge that it only has enough money to build the line from south of Fresno to somewhere north of Bakersfield (authority reps claimed they could get all the way to Shafter, but I have my doubts).
Since there is no more money in the foreseeable future, the authority would agree to take the Bakersfield alignment out of its current environmental impact report.
The authority could certify the rest of the EIR and go forward with that part only.
Once it got to the end of its money, say Pixley or wherever, the authority would route the bullet train onto existing Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe tracks into and through Bakersfield.
The authority would have a workable track, albeit not high speed, while it waited for more money to magically appear, which could take five or 10 years, or even decades.
Meanwhile, the time-out would give the authority, city and other groups time to come up with a more amenable alignment and avoid lawsuits. Court action is almost certain if the pending EIR is certified with its current proposed route cutting through downtown Bakersfield on an 80-foot elevated track in some places.
Most importantly, a time-out for property owners would mean we wouldn’t have a certified EIR looming over our heads making it impossible to sell our homes or businesses for any decent money and with no prospect of the state buying us out either.
The author of this Bakersfield Californian column, Lois Henry, acknowledges that she’s a property owner in the path of the proposed tracks, and she deserves credit for being honest about that up front. Still, the concept being proposed here is tautological and flawed.
Henry’s avowed goal is to move the HSR route out of central Bakersfield and onto the edges of the city. She can’t prevail with that argument on its merits. So she’s trying to force it on the California High Speed Rail Authority by using the fact that it doesn’t yet have all the money it needs to build through Bakersfield as a lever to move the route away from her property.
The tautology here is that the CHSRA doesn’t have enough money to build this section of the route, so the plan should be kicked down the road by 5 or 10 years to ensure it can’t build on that part of the route even if it does get the money to do so.
I understand Henry’s point about homes losing value if there’s an approved EIR but no money to start building. Of course, government has no obligation whatsoever to protect anyone’s property value, but if there’s a way to avoid limbo, that’s worth doing.
The best solution to that limbo isn’t to use the lack of funds as leverage to move the route to a less useful location. High speed rail stations should be built in city centers, where there’s more room for walkability, proximity to major destinations, and room for dense development near the station. Moving it to the edge of town will reduce ridership and promote sprawl.
No, the best solution would be for Henry to turn her attention to her Congressional representative, Kevin McCarthy. If he wasn’t blocking further federal funds for high speed rail, the Authority might well be able to build the route to downtown Bakersfield in the near future. They surely could fund property acquisition, ending the limbo that people like Henry currently face. And the project could stay on the route that makes the most sense from an urban planning, farmland preservation, and ridership perspective.
Henry rails at the Authority for not immediately accepting the proposal to indefinitely defer the EIR, yet her column makes no mention of the fact that Bakersfield’s own member of Congress is helping create this limbo and denying Bakersfield an important piece of infrastructure that will create jobs and economic value for decades to come.
If it’s a deal Henry wants, well, here’s one. The Authority defers the EIR for five years, as long as the federal government commits to funding construction of HSR from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. I think that’s reasonable.
Robert Cruickshank writes on California politics at Calitics and California High Speed Rail Blog. This article was originally published at California High Speed Rail Blog.