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California bullet train: The high price of speed

Its proposed route would destroy churches, schools, homes, warehouses, banks, medical offices, stores and much more.

October 22, 2011|By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
  • Fernando Salazar, 17, a junior at Bakersfield High School, makes a box in the wood-working shop at Bakersfield High School. A proposed high-speed rail route would require closure of the school's industrial arts building.
Fernando Salazar, 17, a junior at Bakersfield High School, makes a box in… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Bakersfield — Since it opened in 1893, Bakersfield High School has been the pride of this city and its academic cornerstone, the place where the late Chief Justice Earl Warren graduated and students call themselves the Drillers in homage to the region's oil patch.

It has withstood earthquakes and depressions, but perhaps it will not survive the California bullet train.

The train's proposed routes are taking aim at the campus, potentially putting a bulls-eye on the Industrial Arts Building, where future engineers, ceramic artists, auto mechanics, fabric designers and wood-workers take classes. Even though freight trains already lumber not far from the campus, these elevated trains could rocket by on a viaduct at up to 220 mph every five minutes, eye level with the school library and deafening the stately outdoor commons where students congregate between classes.

"Obviously we can't have a school with a high-speed rail going over the top of the building," said Principal David Reese. "What kind of distraction would that cause our students?"

The California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency trying to build the bullet train, couldn't have found a more politically sensitive target. The school is where House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), one of the project's staunchest opponents in Congress, sends his children.

Critics say such blunders are routine for the rail authority. Across the length of the Central Valley, the bullet train as drawn would destroy churches, schools, private homes, shelters for low-income people, animal processing plants, warehouses, banks, medical offices, auto parts stores, factories, farm fields, mobile home parks, apartment buildings and much else as it cuts through the richest agricultural belt in the nation and through some of the most depressed cities in California.

Although the potential for such disruption was understood in general terms when the project began 15 years ago, the reality is only now beginning to sink in.

The potential economic, cultural and political damage may be an omen. The Central Valley, where construction could start next year, is expected to be the politically easiest and lowest-cost segment of the system, designed to move millions of passengers between Southern California and the Bay Area. The project's effects could be even greater in more populous places like Silicon Valley, Orange County, Burbank, San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles.

"It is possible to do a high-speed rail project, but you have to be very artful about it, and the authority has been anything but artful," said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Senate transportation subcommittee. "The level of trust at the beginning was pretty low, and it has only gotten worse. Big chunks of the state do not believe they are being listened to."

For years the train's path was somewhat vague, but in August the authority released 70,000 pages of environmental impact reports that detail potential routes through the Central Valley.

Authority officials say they have made every effort to work with people who could be displaced in order to minimize its effects. Rail authority chairman Tom Umberg says a high-speed rail will improve the quality of life in California, not reduce it. Proponents say the benefits are overwhelmingly positive.

"The net gain in jobs is pretty significant," said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a big supporter.

But her own City Council was stunned when members learned recently that hundreds of businesses would be shut down along the 16 miles of rail through town, according to Scott Mozier, the city's assistant public works director.

More than a mile-long segment of California 99, the major freeway serving the farm belt, would have to be moved about 100 feet and three exits would have to be closed. In Kings County, a processing plant that handles about a quarter of a million pounds of dairy cow carcasses would be bisected by the rail, said Jim Andreoli, chief executive of Baker Commodities, owner of the plant. Shutting down for even a few days would leave a mountain of carcasses.

Almost every city and county along the proposed route loses something, but none more than Bakersfield. More than 228 homes and more than a half dozen churches would be taken, many of them in low-income minority communities on the city's east side. The rail authority's plans have both homeowners and government agencies confused.

In formal comments submitted this month to the authority, Bakersfield officials called the plans "ambiguous and unstable." What's more, the authority was being "clearly unreasonable" in initially allowing only two months for the city to review the plans.

The authority, for example, detailed two potential routes close together through the city. Those routes cover only part of Bakersfield, however, causing many property owners to extrapolate that they would be in the train's path when the rest of the route was specified.

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