ANAHEIM, Calif. (CN) – California’s plan to toggle the first phase of its $64 billion high-speed rail project and end it in a rural farming town was bashed Tuesday by Central Valley officials and residents.
During a monthly High-Speed Rail Authority hearing in Anaheim, committee members were implored during a public comment session to rethink their recent proposal to end the train at a rural stop nearly 20 miles north of Bakersfield.
In February, the authority released its 2016 draft finance plan for the contentious bullet train and proposed moving the southern terminal to the farming town of Shafter in order to save money. Critics say building the terminus in Shafter, population 16,000, creates logistical problems as the area doesn’t have enough rental car facilities, bus routes and other services for travelers.
Shafter City Manager Scott Hurlbert called the proposed interim terminal site “less than optimum” and urged the authority to examine alternatives.
A Bakersfield official said the city is opposed to any plan that does not bring travelers into downtown and blasted the draft plan for not including a way for passengers to travel the 20 miles south to Bakersfield.
“The viability of high-speed rail as a transportation option for greater Bakersfield becomes substantially diminished,” Douglas McIsaac, Bakersfield’s development director, said.
The decision to end the first line in Shafter instead of Bakersfield came down to money, the authority says. Moving the terminus further south into Bakersfield’s urban area, population 375,000, would add an additional $2 billion to the bullet train’s already bloated budget, the authority estimates.
Along with the potential logistical issues, moving forward with the Shafter site would “guarantee urban sprawl” and eliminate valuable farm land, said Lauren Skidmore for Kern4HMF, a Kern County business coalition.
The authority heard public comment for nearly two hours and said it’s received 77 public comments on the draft plan as of April 2. The commissioners did not respond directly to public comments Tuesday but said they will be considering each one before submitting their final plan to lawmakers on May 1.
The authority’s draft plan has been widely dissected over the last three months, particularly by lawmakers and state officials. There have been three legislative oversight hearings and a report by the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst since February.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office also advised scrapping the Shafter terminus and questioned the authority’s finance plan. The report said the train’s budget is based off billions in proposed cap-and-trade dollars that may not ever reach the train’s coffers.
“In addition, the business plan lacks a complete funding plan for the remainder of Phase I,” the 12-page report states.
Authority commissioners justified the major changes to an Assembly committee in March and assured them that the train would eventually reach Southern California.
“No part of the state will be left behind,” authority chair Dan Richard testified. “[The changes] represent our best thinking to accomplish that objective in sequence. We cannot reach LA with those available funds at this time, but can make an important connection to Silicon Valley. For the first time, we can look at you and take a big step to accomplish this program.”
The authority hopes to have the first passenger trains running from the Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area by 2025, 17 years after voters approved a bond measure to fund the project. It is still conducting environmental studies and securing funding for routes into the Los Angeles area.
The authority will consider adopting its final 2016 draft plan during a meeting in San Jose on April 21.
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