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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

Officials at First Free Will Baptist Church believe it will lose some of the 22 parcels it owns in east Bakersfield, damaging its outreach mission and a school for 70 kids, no matter which route is selected.

"This area is in decline," said Pastor Mark Harrison. "We have a failing economy. There is a lot of vandalism here. There is graffiti everywhere. We are overrun with gangs. It is a violent area at night. If you want to see hopelessness, look at the youth in this area. We like to think of our church as standing for hope."

Not far from the Baptist church, the bullet train could take aim at a window of the Full Gospel Lighthouse Church, said Pentecostal pastor Todd Matthews. When he received a note warning him about the potential destruction of his church, he put the paper in his shoe, invoking biblical scripture to destroy the rail plan under the feet of God.

"We distribute food and blankets to the homeless at Martin Luther King Park across the street," said Matthews, who worked in the Kern County oil fields for 29 years. "This property is our promise from God. If they offered us $10 million, we would not take it."

About a decade ago, the rail authority asked Bakersfield officials where they wanted a high-speed train station, and civic leaders envisioned a downtown depot that would attract residential development, recalled city planning director Jim Eggert.

What they did not imagine was a viaduct elevated 80 feet over the city and a 5,000-car parking garage dominating the city center, he said. Acoustic experts have also warned that the rail authority is underestimating how loud the trains will be.

"The rail will be too noisy for people to want to live around," he said. "Now that we know what the impacts are, maybe we should have considered a bypass outside of town."

An attractive new downtown residential development along a canal, City Place, is in the train's path, Eggert said. The development is so new that the authority's environmental report did not count its 200 residential units in the city's impact report.

Now, opposition is widespread across town.

When the City Council was considering endorsing the bullet train, some 500 students and alumni of Bakersfield High showed up to protest. The council backed off, recalled Reese, the school's principal.

Either Bakersfield route would cause problems at the school, Reese said. He noted that under the state education code, school systems are not allowed to build new campuses within 1,500 feet of a rail line, but there is no parallel regulation that prevents the building of a rail line near a school.

"Safety is always my first issue," Reese added. "The rail authority argues that there has never been a high-speed derailment. Well, since they said that, there has been a derailment in China," a reference to a crash that killed at least 38 last July.

Rachel Wall, an authority spokeswoman, said the agency is working to mitigate the school's concerns.

Whether the Central Valley can force significant changes in the bullet train plan is unclear. Up and down the valley, people know they are not playing with a strong political hand.

"Some people will say they screwed a bunch of farmers in Kings County. So who cares?" said Frank Oliveira, a farmer. "The answer is they will screw you too when it comes to your neighborhood."

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