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Bakersfield-to-Palmdale bullet train segment, if built, could 'transform' Kern

Bullet train-2

Artist's conception of the bullet train speeding through the Tehachapi Pass.

State officials have released a draft environmental review of the California high-speed rail segment that, by linking Bakersfield with northern Los Angeles County, would be the project's most important section for Kern County.

The review provides a detailed look at the California High-Speed Rail Authority's proposal for connecting Bakersfield and Palmdale with a series of elevated, underground and surface-level tracks through Edison, Tehachapi, Rosamond and Lancaster.

Still lacking, however, is a funding commitment that would pay for the section. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the review released Monday is that it moves the rail agency closer to meeting its 2022 federal deadline for finalizing environmental reviews of its proposed phase-one route between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Regional transportation planner Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kern Council of Governments, said the Bakersfield-Palmdale connection would "completely transform at least metropolitan Bakersfield." But he also said it may be too early to get excited about the route.

"It's premature, in my opinion, to talk about the funding of construction from Bakersfield to Palmdale when we don't even have the funding available for construction of the tracks and the line between (the Shafter area) and Bakersfield," he said.

Last month, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, introduced a bill in Congress that would dedicate $32 billion in federal money to extend the project beyond the Central Valley, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed focusing the project's activities.

It's unclear how far Costa's bill might get considering how strongly high-speed rail has been opposed by congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, who openly mocked the project during his recent visit to Bakersfield.

There is a chance the project will instead attract private investment, said former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who now serves as vice chairman at Siebert Williams Shank & Co. LLC, a New York-based investment banking firm focused on public and private infrastructure.

Cisneros said there is growing recognition that private money will be needed to help pay for unfunded U.S. infrastructure needs he estimated at $2 trillion.

"I have zero doubt that once this is put together in fiscally sound ways with good market analysis, good engineering designs and routes that the private sector will be available to help," he said of California's bullet-train project.

The first operational segment of the rail project, from Merced to Bakersfield, is planned to begin service in 2028 or 2029. The entire phase-one portion, connecting the Bay Area with Los Angeles and Anaheim, is supposed to be operational by 2033. Eventually the project is intended to link Sacramento and San Diego as well.

The route from F Street and Golden State Avenue in Bakersfield to the Palmdale Transportation Center measures measures 80 miles and largely follows Highway 58.

The segment would be built on raised tracks from Bakersfield to Edison before dropping to surface level and proceeding, with some underground portions, to Keene.

There would be underground tracks between Keene and the Mojave area and a mix of elevated and surface level portions through Rosamond. From Lancaster to Palmdale the project would be completed mostly at surface level. There would be stations only in Bakersfield and Palmdale.

Four alternative alignments remain in play for the Bakersfield-to-Palmdale route. But none of the four are as different as the three options still on the table for connecting Palmdale and Burbank, considered one of the project's most challenging segments to design.

An open house for the draft environmental review is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Edison Middle School Gym, 721 S. Edison Road.

The only other Kern County public meeting on the draft document is set for 5:30 p.m. March 26 at the Rosamond Public Library, 3611 Rosamond Blvd. in Rosamond.

A public hearing on the draft review is set for 3 to 8 p.m. April 9 at the Stanley Kleiner Activity Building in Lancaster's Sgt. Steve Owen Memorial Park, 43063 N. 10th St. West.

The draft's public comment period began Friday and extends for 45 days. Public comments may be made at any of the public meetings or online at www.hsr.ca.gov.

Alternatively, comments may be emailed to Bakersfield_palmdale@hsr.ca.gov with the subject line "Bakersfield to Palmdale Draft Supplemental EIR/EIS Comment."

Another option is to mail a comment to Attn: Bakersfield to Palmdale: Draft EIR/EIS California, High-Speed Rail Authority, 770 L St., Suite 620 MS-1.

To view the draft document, go online at www.hsr.ca.gov.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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