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ROBERT PRICE: That high-speed fiction looks a lot more like fact now

In the two decades since Californians first started debating a high-speed rail system along the state's long spine, one stubborn but ever-growing camp of voters has always considered the undertaking too pie-in-the-sky, too remotely distant and, especially, too expensive to be anything more than fiction.

Well, the pie has landed.

Although work has been underway north of Fresno since 2015, the reality of high-speed rail has been clearly evident only over the past several weeks at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Progress is plainly visible along State Route 43 about halfway between Wasco and Shafter. Two miles north of Merced Avenue, 59 of them of varying heights (between 32 and 35 feet) and stages of completion, point the way to the segment's eventual terminus at F Street and Golden State Avenue in Bakersfield, just 22 miles south.

Subcontractors will eventually build a viaduct over pairs of massive, parallel pillars — the elevated rail bed for a train that, at points along the route, will hit 220 mph.

This is the southernmost section of the 119-mile initial phase of California high-speed rail, a segment that now has more than 20 active job sites employing 3,000 workers, including four sites in Kern County, between Avenue 19 in Madera County and Merced Avenue in Kern County. Almost 400 of those workers live right here.

When it opens for business in 2028, the Central Valley segment line will move passengers from Bakersfield to Fresno in a little over 45 minutes and from Bakersfield to Merced in an hour and a half.

That means Bakersfield folks can take in a show at Fresno's William Saroyan Theater and return home in time for Jimmy Kimmel. That means Fresnans intrigued by the prospect of spending a Saturday night, say, at a Bakersfield honky-tonk, can do the same. But the phase-one rail line won't be particularly useful to those whose plans involve Fisherman's Wharf or Disneyland — or, more to the point of it all, a business pitch in Sacramento. Hence the popular pejorative, "Train to nowhere."

Meaningful connectivity will come later — much later — and then only if the Bakersfield-to-Merced line helps Gov. Gavin Newsom achieve a key political goal: The Central Valley portion of the project is the "prove-it" segment of high-speed rail, running across generally straight, flat, inexpensive, politically less complicated land. Newsom can herald its completion as his first high-speed triumph.

He still has some folks to win over.

Leaders from both the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin want to know why Sacramento is pouring $20.5 billion into a train from one valley town to another when it's those gridlocked major cities to the north and south that have the real need for transportation relief.

Many in the conservative Central Valley, particularly Kern and Kings counties, have criticized the project for entirely different reasons. They resent the huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars, the wildly escalating costs, the relentless property acquisition, the irony of Highway 99's degraded condition and, perhaps most of all, the general foisting of the state's will upon the provinces.

Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, the lone Democrat on the board, says the California High-Speed Rail Authority has come a long way toward easing some of those perceptions in the past few months. She said she and fellow Supervisor David Couch met recently with the rail authority's chief executive, Brian P. Kelly, and she came away encouraged.

"I'm blown away by how far we've come," she said Saturday. "It was so fiercely hated. A big part of it was the way they did it. They said, 'We're taking your land whether you like it or not.' I was frankly ashamed to be a Democrat. But I have never been anything other than confident that high-speed rail represents the kind of modern mechanization that closes the skills gap that our people have here in this part of the valley. We're in trouble because our people cannot compete. This can change all that, and I am so glad we have this new director in place, who gets all that."

Newsom, in his first State of the State address last February, made that very sales pitch. Even as he conceded that funding and political will have largely evaporated for high-speed rail, he left the door ajar by keeping the Bakersfield-to-Merced phase alive.

“High-speed rail is much more than a train project," Newsom said at the time. "It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the valley. We can align our economic and workforce development strategies, anchored by high-speed rail, and pair them with tools like opportunity zones, to form the backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley economy."

Bakersfield Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen said that, despite now-settled litigation with the rail authority over the location of the terminal, that's exactly the hope down at City Hall.

"If high-speed rail comes to fruition, it would be a great benefit to the region," she said. "It would bring people down here to Bakersfield, it would create business opportunities, and it would open another line of communication that we really need. That's looking at it from a totally nonpartisan position."

Of course, it's been difficult to separate the economic and political aspects, especially in Bakersfield, where every Republican politician — which is to say almost every politician, period — has held up the project as an example of the majority party's wastefulness and deception. The project, ticketed in 2008 at $33 billion, is now expected to come in at as much as $98 billion.

Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner is among those unimpressed. "As it stands they still don't have a funding plan to come into Bakersfield in a way that makes sense," he said. "They have continued building toward something so they can say, 'Well, now we need to finish.' We have so many other needs. We need to finish Highway 46 (widening), build truck-climbing lanes through the (Tehachapi Mountains) because of all this increased truck traffic, and we also need an effective statewide water plan. This is a misguided project and has been since the beginning."

Mark Salvaggio, who served on the Bakersfield City Council from 1985 to 2004, was there for the city's initial vote on high-speed rail, a 1999 general resolution of support. He hasn't liked much of what he has seen since.

"What does this Bakersfield-to-Merced segment give us? Not much. ... But I would say they're going to finish it, just to show a victory and salvage a project that has lost favor with the public,” he said. "They're politicians — it's in their nature, in their blood, to make lemonade out of lemons."

Indeed, if high-speed rail halves the travel time between California's fifth- (Fresno) and ninth- (Bakersfield) largest cities from two hours to less than one, it might be difficult for the Legislature to dismiss. Whether anyone debating the project today is sufficiently ambulatory to board an L.A.-to-San Francisco train in 2033, when the final golden spike is supposed to be hammered home, is another matter.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

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