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John Spaulding, a union official whose members would benefit from the construction, insists that the bullet-train-line project will be a huge boon for the struggling city of Bakersfield, Calif. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
John Spaulding, a union official whose members would benefit from the construction, insists that the bullet-train-line project will be a huge boon for the struggling city of Bakersfield, Calif. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

American Postcards

High-speed rail project a potent election issue on streets of Bakersfield Add to ...

Life has been tough on the dusty streets of Bakersfield lately.

This city of 350,000 in the flat, dry centre of California’s Central Valley has suffered the recession worse than most places in the United States. Its agricultural, oil and aerospace industries have suffered, leaving a 14 per cent unemployment rate and countless boarded-up shopfronts.

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So you would think that President Barack Obama’s delivery of $6-billion in federal spending would have cheered everyone up, and maybe won him some votes – especially when that money is to be spent on building the local branch of a $26-billion ultra-high-speed bullet-train line that will whip residents off to San Francisco or Los Angeles in an hour.

It would be a real boon in a town where, as Buck Owens famously sang, it takes “a thousand miles of thumbing” and a set of worn-out heels just to get out of town.

But this is Bakersfield, one of the most conservative places in the western U.S., where big government projects backed by a Democratic president are about as popular as rainbow flags and Greenpeace stickers, neither of which are to be found among the countless bail-bond shops and liquor stores.

So the high-speed rail line has become a potent election target for the city’s Tea Party-dominated Republican Party, for whom it is almost a perfect emblem of big-government excess. After all, not only will it be paid for through tax revenues (and debt), but it will also require the government to appropriate and divide private property – a veritable libertarian’s nightmare. As a result, the election has become something of a contest to denounce the rail project as loudly as possible.

On top of that, the Republican-heavy city government has responded to the project by suing it, partly on practical grounds – the train tracks, raised 21 metres above the ground on pylons, are described as impractical and eyesores – but also because it just isn’t something they feel government should be doing.

“The big picture is that the fiscal solvency of the state is a big issue,” says Jim Eggert, Bakersfield’s planning director, who is building the case for the city’s anti-rail lawsuit. “This project and its deadlines are all being driven by federal infusions of money – and that’s just not a great way to do something like this.”

For the city’s community of train enthusiasts, Democrats and people who’d like to get out of town faster, this has been a difficult struggle.

Governor Jerry Brown, an outspoken advocate of the project, visited Bakersfield this week to argue that the train, which will glide between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two and a half hours, will be economically important and crucial to his state’s recovery. But he had little audience here – a situation that makes supporters roll their eyes.

“The federal government has infused $6-billion into the economy,” says John Spaulding, a union official who has become an outspoken backer of the project, in part because it would create employment for his union’s members.

“It’s a huge job opportunity and it’ll be a huge boon for our economy,” he adds. “We’ve been stagnating for a while.”

Postmark

Three years after President Barack Obama announced a major plan to bring high-speed intercity rail lines, of the sort familiar to European and Asian travellers, to the United States – an $8-billion part of his stimulus plan, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – and the launch of a proposed $53-billion, six-year building program, they have become central to political battles in many of the states involved, and a big issue in Mr. Obama’s re-election bid.

Florida: A Tampa-Orlando rail line was cancelled last year after Republican Governor Rick Scott rejected all projects funded by Mr. Obama’s administration.

Ohio: The state’s section of a Chicago-Philadelphia rail hub was cancelled after Republican Governor John Kasich opposed it in 2010.

Wisconsin: The Milwaukee-Chicago line was also cancelled in 2010, after Republican Governor Scott Walker, a famously rigid fiscal conservative, said he would not accept it.

Texas: Work on high-speed lines linking Houston and Dallas and Oklahoma City and Dallas began in 2010 – in part because Republican Governor Rick Perry has been a fairly enthusiastic backer of rail.

Follow us on Twitter: @lizrenzetti, @dougsaunders

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