Friendly Meeting on|Calif. High-Speed Rail

     BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — After settling an environmental lawsuit challenging the Fresno-Bakersfield segment of California’s bullet train, the High-Speed Rail Authority on Tuesday discussed an alternative route that will have fewer impacts on farmland, environmental resources and Kern County residents.
     Diana Gomez, the authority’s regional leader for the Central Valley, gave a PowerPoint presentation detailing the new route, called the locally generated alternative, or LGA. Developed in partnership with Bakersfield and other stakeholders, including resource agencies, landowners and community leaders, the alternative would cross the approved alignment near Shafter, about 20 miles north of Bakersfield, and parallel the Union Pacific rail line east to a terminus at F Street and Golden State Avenue in downtown Bakersfield.
     After the authority in May 2014 identified an alternative that extended the route from Poplar Avenue in Shafter to seventh Standard Road, with a station at Truxtun Avenue, a busy Bakersfield thoroughfare, Bakersfield and developer Coffee-Brimhall LLC sued the authority on environmental grounds.
     They claimed the 114-mile corridor of tracks, tunnels, and bridges would destroy prime farmland, water resources and hundreds of homes, would congest traffic, pollute the air, annoy residents with noise, and demolish the developer’s business properties.
     In a February 2015 settlement, the authority agreed to seek a more environmentally and development-friendly alternative in exchange for a hold on litigation until a final alignment is chosen.
     Engineering and maintenance in the new alternative are similar to the 2014 project, but the new one has several advantages, according to the Tuesday presentation. Among other things, the 23-mile-long LGA is 1 mile shorter than the 2014 project, will cost less to operate, and will enable trains to go 220 mph, making it more efficient.
     Since it was generated through discussions with city officials, public workshops and technical working groups, there is more local support for the LGA than for the 2014 alignment, Gomez said.
     Mark McLoughlin, the authority’s director of environmental services, told the board the LGA will have fewer impacts on water resources and agricultural land. It will destroy 655 acres of important farmland compared to 906 acres in the 2014 plan, causing $1.35 million less in loss. It will affect roughly 16 acres of federal waters versus 17 acres.
     Though it will affect 17 more businesses than the 2014 project, the LGA will take out only 94 residential units compared to 258, and no medical facilities compared to two.
     Both alignments were found to have disproportionately high impacts to minority and low-income communities, but the LGA has less of an impact than the 2014 project, especially in regard to noise, according to the Gomez’s presentation.
     Environmental review will be performed by the authority and the Federal Railroad Administration and be released in a draft environmental impact report this summer, then circulated for a 45-day public comment period.
     Though the staff has adopted the LGA as the preliminarily preferred alternative, this does not indicate approval or even tentative approval; it is simply a designation that will help the board commit to public transparency during environmental review in accordance with the 2012 federal Map-21 law, Chairman Dan Richard said.
     The Tuesday meeting was the first time the authority has met in Bakersfield. Every board member except Michael Rossi attended.
     Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall addressed the board before the meeting, praising the agency for working with the city despite previous adversarial stances, and collaborating to forge a “mutually agreeable path forward.”
     “Working together is the preferred path, and I’m happy to see the results,” Hall said. “We must make sure that the high-speed rail puts Bakersfield in a position of advantage.”
     City Manager Alan Tandy also thanked the board, noting wryly that meeting at City Hall was “much nicer” than meeting in court. He too urged the board to adopt the LGA as the preferred alternative and hoped that the authority will bring the rail to the ninth-largest city in the state.
     He and Mayor Hall left shortly after the meeting got under way.
     Before opening public comment, Chairman Richard allowed community leaders to address the board. Fresno Mayor Ashley Searengin went first.
     Asking the board to install the heavy maintenance facility in Fresno, she noted the city’s long history of support for the bullet train and its efforts to anticipate the rail line’s needs, such as centering land use around the high-speed rail and rezoning the entire city for mixed-use and transportation.
     Rob Terry with the Fresno Council of Governments echoed Searengin’s sentiments.
     Scott Broker of Shafter said it was clear the LGA was better for Bakersfield, but that it is still unclear whether the LGA is better for Shafter. He urged the board to analyze environmental impacts to Shafter as thoroughly as it analyzed impacts to Bakersfield.
     Pitching Bakersfield as the best site for the heavy maintenance facility, Richard Chapman with the Kern Economic Development Corporation said Bakersfield has a talented workforce due to a downturn in the oil industry, and is ranked number four by Brookings for jobs related to math, science, and engineering and number nine by Forbes for engineering industries.
     John Spalding, executive officer of the Building Trades Council, agreed, saying that “stopping in Poplar is not popular.” Poplar is a small town north of Bakersfield and south of Visalia.
     Though most commenters supported the LGA and the bullet train, some were hesitant.
     Adam Cohen said he’s collected 80 signatures opposing the F Street station because it will affect low-income communities and that it was “unfair, arbitrary, and capricious” to expedite Map-21 proceedings to choose a preferred alignment without properly analyzing emissions impacts and environmental justice concerns.
     Holly King, a member of a local farming operation, said she does not oppose the bullet train but took issue with the authority’s failure to contact several farmers whose land would be affected by it. She told the board to do its environmental analysis on the ground rather than by flyover, noting that preliminary flyovers identified wetlands that were not actually there.
     Beatrice Sanders with the Kern County Farm Bureau, which represents 1,400 growers, also the authority to study additional alternatives to reduce impacts to farmers.
     Louis Gill, director of the Bakersfield Homeless Shelter, told the board to polite laughter that “you guys really know how to stir things up.” Regardless of which alternative is chosen, his 174-bed facility, which houses mostly women and children, will be demolished.
     Finding a new site is easier said than done because few neighborhoods would welcome the shelter, he said. Unlike a parallel issue with Fresno’s homeless shelter, the Bakersfield shelter has no adjacent land to which to expand or move. He urged the board to choose an alternative quickly so the shelter could find a new campus and secure funding from donors, who he said are “sitting on the sidelines waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
     Kevin Bush asked for work on the entire segment to be tabled until more analysis on community impacts is done.
     Patrick Jackson, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he supports the project in general, but more needs to be done to alleviate the burden on minority communities.
     Fresno environmental activist Sheralyn Smith was the most impassioned speaker, criticizing the authority for seizing land through eminent domain for a project that was not even finalized and for not accounting for pollution impacts from construction. She called the relationship between the authority and the state’s cap-and-trade program “parasitic” and condemned the authority as the “spoiled children of [Gov.] Jerry Brown.”
     Wasco Mayor Cherylee Wegman urged the board to adopt mitigation measures to protect farmworkers living in her small agriculture town from noise. Since the rail line will be built about 1000 feet from the workers’ community, which was built in the 1940s and was once used as an internment camp during World War II, Wegman asked the rail to consider moving the community, using mitigation money and funds from other programs and agencies.
     Other speakers included representatives from Madera County, who thanked the board for including a stop there, and residents of Acton, who blasted the authority for choosing a route that will decimate the community though a below-ground route is feasible and more cost-effective.
     Most people were dressed professionally in suits, and the atmosphere seemed relaxed. People talked and laughed before session began.
     Kern County supervisors did not attend because as they were meeting elsewhere at the same time.

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