California high-speed rail now seems on more certain footing than ever. Gov. Jerry Brown didn't bend to pressure to drop the multibillion-dollar project in order to help his sales tax proposition pass, and voters approved new taxes anyway. And on Nov. 16, a federal judge ruled against Central Valley farmers who had tried to stop the project from proceeding by claiming the state hadn't properly assessed the project's environmental risks. Following that court decision, the rail authority's chairman, Dan Richard, declared the state ready to move forward and break ground in the Central Valley next summer.
But are we ready? Is the valley prepared to provide the workforce that's needed for what is being called one of the biggest public works projects in the state's history? Will the thousands of jobs created be filled by local workers or by labor that's imported from other cities and states? And is Kern County properly positioning itself to reap the most benefits possible from this rare opportunity?
High-speed rail plans were once the subject of serious and optimistic local discussion, but the tone has changed drastically over the past few years. The most recent local utterances regarding high-speed rail were not very positive: The cities of Bakersfield and Wasco and the Kern County Board of Supervisors have all voted in the past year to oppose the project.
Certainly we've got plenty of good reasons for frustration. The rail authority hasn't been totally forthcoming with details about the route's impacts to downtown Bakersfield, and it hasn't been adequately candid with private property owners elsewhere in the route's path. But, in hindsight, were local authorities smart to give the project the cold shoulder with their official withdrawals of support?
Those votes of no confidence may have seemed sensible at the time considering the looming November elections and the uncertainty they represented for the country and this state. But now that President Obama has been re-elected and Democrats have secured a supermajority in the state Legislature, it's more clear that Washington and Sacramento intend to act on their mandate -- however narrow it may, in some cases, have been. It's apparent they'll carry out the wishes of California voters who approved the concept -- if not the price tag -- of high-speed rail in 2008.
Given this, are local leaders still content to sit on the sidelines, arms crossed, resenting the project? We hope not.
With three new members elected, or soon to be elected, to the seven-person Bakersfield City Council and three new members joining the five-person Kern County Supervisors, it's likely high-speed rail will get a fresh look in the new year.
For all the negative talk, Kern County still stands to reap substantial gains from the construction and deployment of high-speed rail. The system will create thousands of construction jobs and facilitate new opportunities for employment and business. Isn't that something we ought to hang some hope on? Isn't that what every politician in recent years has pledged to help bring to our community, which was battered worse than many others by the Great Recession? It's imperative that local leaders begin to prepare and situate our communities for the inevitable coming of high-speed rail.
We don't expect an immediate about-face but we do hope, sooner rather than later, they'll realize that it's really happening. High-speed rail is moving forward, with us or without us.