Tehachapi welcomes latest changes to high-speed rail plans

Tehachapi City Hall, once a leading local critic of California’s bullet train project, has tentatively given its blessing to plans released Friday for high-speed rail tracks proposed to connect Bakersfield and Palmdale. City Manager Greg Garrett said Monday that, although he and his staff had not finished reading the entirety of the project’s new environmental review, the California High-Speed Rail Authority appears to have made a number of positive changes in response to the city’s requests. Among the most welcome revisions he said were outlined in a meeting Monday morning between Tehachapi officials and rail authority staff were the introduction of two sections of sound walls, one in the Ash Village area and one near Arabian Estates.

Another improvement he pointed to was the agency’s agreement to lower the bullet train route’s height profile through the Tehachapi area, as well as its pledge to accommodate a station that might one day be built in the city. “At this point we do feel that (the rail authority) has addressed our concerns to the point that we can continue to move forward,” he said. “But we would encourage citizens” to review the latest plans as well, he added. Late Friday afternoon the rail authority issued what it termed the final environmental review of an 80-mile alignment mostly following Highway 58 between a proposed station at F Street and Golden State Avenue in Bakersfield and another in Palmdale. The rail authority’s governing board is scheduled to vote in mid-August on whether to adopt the review.

Maps contained in the document show the route would be built on raised viaducts through most of Bakersfield then come down to surface level through the Edison area. Through the Tehachapi Mountains it would run underground as well as at ground level and on viaducts, then proceed mostly along the surface through the Antelope Valley. The rail authority estimates the route will become operational in 2033 as part of the start of service between San Francisco and Los Angeles. That’s about three years after it expects trains traveling up to 220 mph will connect Merced and Bakersfield. Friday’s release has also renewed calls by the Kern Council of Governments for state cooperation on three portions of the proposed Bakersfield-to-Palmdale alignment.

Executive Director Ahron Hakimi said Kern COG has for years spoken with the rail authority about potentially coordinating work on a grade separation he said would improve safety, congestion and other conditions near Edison Highway and Morning Drive. The idea is that work there will take years to plan and, because it has independent utility, the grade separation could begin ahead of the rail segment’s construction timetable. Another project Hakimi said would benefit from an early start on construction is a grade separation at the intersection of highways 58 and 223 near Bakersfield National Cemetery. Early work there would be helpful because excess dirt from the rail authority’s excavation work through the Tehachapi Mountains could be put to use raising part of the intersection.

Extra lanes for eastbound trucks climbing the Tehachapi Pass represent the third project Kern COG wants to see start early. Hakimi said that project has been under consideration for more than 20 years. No formal agreement has been struck to proceed with those projects ahead of other local work, but a representative of the rail authority said by email Monday the agency is interested in collaborating with local jurisdictions to advance all three efforts “as funding becomes available.”

Money to complete the overall project remains an open question. Although the Biden administration recently freed up nearly $1 billion that had been taken away from the project by the Trump administration, tens of billions of dollars are still needed to complete the work. The Biden administration has talked about dedicating money toward the project but has not finalized funding. Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a vocal supporter of California high-speed rail, has been negotiating recently with state legislators on as much as $4.2 billion in new money for the rail project. “Hopefully we’ll have an update on (those discussions) by the end of the month,” rail authority spokeswoman Toni Tinoco said Monday. Garrett, Tehachapi’s city manager, noted the area receives little to no benefit from the project itself, even as Bakersfield and Palmdale will benefit. That’s why he said the possibility of a station one day in Tehachapi seems appealing. “It’s not something that’s in the plan at all but in the future there may be a possibility, right?” he said.

Rail authority CEO Brian Kelly said in a news release Friday that the new environmental review, which followed the public release of a draft in February 2020 and a revised version one year after that, culminates thoughtful study and collaboration with various agencies and local government leaders, community members and other stakeholders. “With this effort, California will have 300 of the 500-mile high-speed rail system environmentally cleared, paving the way for future construction progress into Los Angeles County,” he wrote.


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