Bullet train officials promise more review of proposed route in Kern County

FRESNO, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Bullet train officials say they'll keep listening to Kern County concerns about the proposed route for the high-speed rail project. The promise came at the end of a long meeting Thursday in Fresno, where the High Speed Authority board got an earful of complaints about possible impacts.

HSR staff made a presentation on their "preliminary recommended preferred alignment" for the stretch of track from Fresno to Bakersfield.

One of the final statements reads "technical data identifies the Wasco-Shafter bypass and Bakersfield Hybrid as preferred, however staff recommends continued evaluation of the Wasco-Shafter area and Bakersfield area due to information still being received from stakeholders."

The "Wasco-Shafter bypass" and recommendation through Bakersfield drew plenty of fire from speakers who packed the board meeting. Some farmers and spokesmen for an agricultural group from Shafter and Wasco told the board the proposed alignment would cause loss of farmland, farming water, and even producing oil wells.

Others argued it's pointless for the authority to nail down a route through Kern County, saying the agency doesn't have enough funding to build the rail through the area. That's a view shared by Bakersfield officials.

"They don't have enough money to build anything south of approximately Shafter," City Manager Alan Tandy had told Eyewitness News on Wednesday. "So, we don't believe they should adopt a plan line through downtown Bakersfield." He said the announced preferred route would affect 1,800 properties in the city.

Those affected areas would include the city's "corporation yard," new Mill Creek housing, and Bakersfield Homeless Center.

"Right now we have a possible problem," Homeless Center CEO Louis Gill said. The non-profit provides shelter for families, and the proposed route could put the bullet train right over their location on East Truxtun. "Because we're notified that this is an area of concern, we're talking to people, trying to learn," he said. Gill said it's a big problem to not know exactly what will happen, or when.

At the Thursday meeting, other Kern County people argued the new bullet train rail should go along the existing track for freight trains. Others said they support high speed rail, but it's vital to get the right route.

At completion, the bullet train's supposed to go from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, and it'll run at speeds up to 220 miles an hour. Funds come from voter-approved state bonds, federal grants, local funding and public-private partnerships, according to the HSR Authority. They call the Central Valley segment the backbone of the system.

HSR staff say their announced preferred route from Fresno to Bakersfield is the alternative with the lowest cost, and it still provides similar travel times. They note the Wasco-Shafter bypass route has fewer adverse impacts than other options, though they are getting more information, and they plan more evaluation of it.

As for the Bakersfield Hybrid alternative, the staff said it has benefits over other alternatives that had been considered. It does not directly affect Bakersfield High School, and impacts fewer churches and housing units.

The staff said they are still getting more input from the community in Kern and Bakersfield and they'll keep meeting with local groups and officials to "ensure their concerns are addressed."

One HSR official characterized the Thursday meeting as a chance to review the latest analysis, providing a "snap shot" of what the data shows. The authority noted they are set to take action to identifying a "preferred alignment" at the May board meeting, but that route will still undergo review by various state and federal agencies, and final adoption isn't expected until this fall.