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Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at

Years ago, when I was this newspaper's city hall reporter, I asked City Manager Alan Tandy why Bakersfield didn't build its major arterials wide enough to one day accommodate some sort of light rail system. You know, start thinking about the future of a city that was, at the time, hurdling toward potential relevance at an unprecedented and possibly unsustainable speed.

He looked at me with that sweeping glance I'll call the Tandy Dismissal -- a slight eye roll and almost imperceptible smirk that says, "You're an idiot." He was probably correct. No city tacks an extra 30 feet onto the side of a street to reserve space for something no one wants and almost surely will never need. Sacramento and San Jose have light rail systems because they're real cities; Bakersfield has pickup trucks and three-car garages to put them in.

Well, guess what? I have been vindicated. Sort of vindicated. OK, not really vindicated at all. But I spoke the words "light rail" in a semi-official setting last week and no one smirked. Some even nodded, as if public transportation -- about as popular in Bakersfield as Nancy Pelosi -- was very much in the conversation.

Of this I am sure: That conversation is underway. The Kern Council of Governments, a regional transportation planning agency, is polling people about how they want their city to look and function in the years ahead. One such session took place last week at Rabobank Convention Center, and another is set for Tuesday evening at Fresno Pacific University's Bakersfield Center, near the Park at Riverwalk (1100 River Run Blvd., Room 203, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Details: 861-2191.).

Bakersfield and Kern County regularly receive federal, state and local tax money that must be applied to transportation infrastructure, and they have a fair amount of leeway as to how to spend it -- from patching potholes to rolling out new parkways. To a very great extent, the way we encourage housing growth in terms of location and type will help determine the sort of roads and conveyances that will best serve us in getting to and from those homes.

For years, Bakersfield's preferred model has been single family homes with big lots -- one of the largest average lot sizes in the country by one study. As a result, at 142 square miles, Bakersfield is the fourth-largest city in California by area. It's bigger than Philadelphia, Detroit and Seattle. The spread-out nature of this city presents Golden Empire Transit with huge ridership challenges, which are evident at all but the busiest commute times, and it impacts taxpayers who must pay for new roads, traffic signals, sidewalks and sewer lines.

But maybe we don't want to change that development model. Maybe most people can accept increasing traffic -- along with air-quality sacrifices, more residential water use and continuing farmland consumption -- in exchange for a McMansion with a half-acre of bermuda grass and swimming-pool deck. That, in Kern COG's presentation of future development options, is essentially Scenario 1.

The Kern COG workshop presents four scenarios in all. Scenario 2 is similar to Scenario 1, but it increases investment in roadway maintenance and transit, bike and walk infrastructure. Scenario 3 is similar to 2 but adds more focus on the revitalization of downtown and broader transit choices. Scenario 4 is basically 3 on steroids -- more and better transit and infill building and at a faster pace. It's the least drain on water, energy, fuel and household costs, among other things.

The Central Valley is the fastest-growing part of the state and Bakersfield is the fastest-growing part of the Central Valley, with the county's population forecast to hit 2.1 million by 2060, far surpassing Fresno County. We might as well start paving the right road for our kids and their kids right now. We might even want to save space, finally, for light rail.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at @stubblebuzz