High-speed rail seemed like a great idea when Bakersfield officials were first presented with the tentative plan more than a decade ago. Given the choice between a route that brings the bullet train right into the heart of the city's downtown core and other alternatives outside the city's urban footprint, the Bakersfield City Council voted enthusiastically to endorse a downtown stop. Kern County supervisors later voted unanimously to support the city's position.
Now, with the rubber coming closer to hitting the road, we are seeing all manner of hand-wringing and foot-dragging. It's as if both of those local government entities failed to consider that whatever was in the rail's path would eventually have to go.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority hadn't made much noise in Bakersfield over the past year, but that changed this week when the agency unveiled a preliminary track alignment plan. On most counts, it's an improvement over previously discussed alternatives. With this option, the rail authority sidesteps an emotional confrontation almost certain to result in a legal battle -- the proposed destruction of historic buildings on the campus of Bakersfield High School.
That doesn't mean the newly proposed alignment -- which follows the general path of the two previous alternatives -- will be met with open arms. Potential casualties of the newly proposed path include the Bakersfield Homeless Center, which is situated along East Truxtun Avenue, as well as other properties and valuable farmland.
Endorsing high-speed rail had to have been a much easier decision for the City Council back in 1999 when it first considered the project, and again in 2001 when it reaffirmed its position, than it is today. Perhaps council members had a sense that tomorrow would never come. Well, it has, and the rail authority -- having weathered justifiable criticism and withering political opposition -- is proceeding as promised. No one should be surprised.
Work on the first phase, Merced to Bakersfield, begins this summer, but the first shovel strikes earth well to the north, between Fresno and Madera. That gives the rail authority time to work with Bakersfield-area officials on route refinements, and it has indicated a willingness to do so. Bakersfield is not the only municipality to express concerns; Shafter and Wasco also have issues with what will surely be a disruptive force in small-town life -- at least at first.
Some community stakeholders may actually benefit. One is the Bakersfield Homeless Center, which sits squarely on the high-speed tracks. If city officials can negotiate attractive rebuilds of affected properties, many people may in fact be better off than before.
Bakersfield City Manger Alan Tandy is right about this: Property owners whose land is in high-speed rail's path deserve some finality. It may take some time for the parties to negotiate mutually beneficial route modifications, but they must remember that property owners are entitled to prompt answers.
As for the larger question of whether the rail project should come into downtown Bakersfield at all, by any route: Everyone potentially affected by this project -- and that's every taxpaying Californian, really -- should remember that their elected local representatives endorsed a downtown depot in principle, and no one called for their heads in response. It's coming and we asked for it.