Students from Bakersfield High School pleaded Thursday with California High-Speed Rail officials to spare their campus at a downtown hearing that drew sharp contrasts between the project's local supporters and opponents.
The hearing on a 3,300-page draft environmental review of the project's initial leg, between Merced and Bakersfield, also attracted local church members and mobile home owners upset with what they considered shortcomings in the review process, as well as project supporters who lauded the proposed train system as a job engine.
Some of the more impassioned comments came from BHS students, many of whom took the podium at the Beale Memorial Library Auditorium to ask officials to choose a route that would not require demolishing the schools' 1920s-era industrial arts building. Other BHS students applauded from the audience or held posters and chanted at street corners outside the building.
Adam DeLisle, a junior who called himself "one of the happiest students at BHS," told project representatives that his parents and grandparents attended the school -- and he wanted his future son to do the same.
"You can't just move history like that," he said.
Teacher Ken Hooper, who also spoke against disturbing the campus, said the students' activism Thursday was "very reflective of the passion the students have for our school."
Project officials complimented the students during a break in the proceedings Thursday.
"Getting them engaged in the civic process should get them extra credits or something," California High Speed Rail Authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said.
The hearing brought out representatives of at least three Bakersfield churches -- including the Korean Presbyterian Church of Bakersfield USA and Chinmaya Mission Bakersfield -- who said they had not been informed until very recently that the project could impact their property.
Anil Mehta, president of Chinmaya Mission, said he received a letter advising the congregation that its building could be affected, but that the implications were unclear. Speaking against what he considered a serious oversight in the public notice requirement, Mehta also criticized the project as wasteful in light of the fact that the rail authority lacks money to complete it.
"Our grandchildren will laugh at us: Why did we build this white elephant?" he said.
Katharine Wood was one of several people who spoke on behalf of residents of a mobile home park on Jewetta Avenue that would have to be at least partially removed to make way for the rail project regardless of which proposed routes are selected next spring. She said many of the residents are senior citizens who can't afford to move or don't want to.
"My concern is for those people," said Wood, who lives at the property with her mother. "What's going to happen to them?"
Project supporters also spoke up in numbers, arguing in many cases that the rail authority should mitigate the impact on residents and institutions without abandoning a project they see as beneficial on many levels.
Bakersfield resident Ralph Jennings said he hopes to get a job helping build the train system. He proposed building it above ground or below -- anything to ensure it achieves the community support it needs.
"This is just an obstacle we need to figure out how to overcome," he said.
A group of supporters that included local business and transportation leaders rallied at a news conference just before Thursday's hearing. They called for continued commitment to a project they said would not only create local construction and possibly maintenance jobs, but also improve connectivity with Los Angeles and reduce pollution and traffic congestion.
"This project obviously is essential and meets our litmus test for job creation and business recruitment throughout the valley," said Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corp.
Also speaking at the press conference was Mike Turnipseed, executive director of the Kern County Taxpayers Association. He said the proposed system would lessen the burden on businesses struggling to meet tough air standards.
He also said a project official pledged in a meeting with association board members in 2008 that the rail authority would build a lucrative train maintenance facility in Kern County. That facility, highly sought by Kern and several other communities across the Central Valley, is planned to create at least 1,500 good-paying jobs.
After the news conference, Turnipseed explained that other taxpayers associations in the state wondered why the Kern group had backed the project, expected to cost at least $43 billion, possibly much more. His response: because project officials had promised the maintenance yard to Kern.
"They wanted our endorsement because nobody else would endorse it," he said. "They made promises."
Rail authority Vice Chairman Tom Richards said he wasn't aware of any such arrangement, and that any such agreement would seem to contravene the review work now in process.
"No decisions have been made," Richards said.
Public comments on the environmental review are due to the rail authority by Oct. 13.
Construction of the project is planned to begin late next year. By 2020, trains going up to 220 mph are proposed to link Anaheim and San Francisco.