Fear and Loathing in Bakersfield (and the LA Times)
I had a feeling the LA Times’ Ralph Vartabedian would be a problem for the HSR project last month when he tried to scare Californians out of building a better future. He’s at it again in today’s Times, casting the bullet train as a Godzilla monster out to destroy Bakersfield.
The problem here is that, as with all too many reporters, Vartabedian only looks at the costs of the project and does not anywhere assess the benefits. There is no doubt that the project has impacts to Bakersfield. As with any road widening or other big infrastructure project, surrounding homes and businesses are often affected.
But what matters is whether the impacts are worth it. Too often, California journalists just blindly assume it’s not when it comes to passenger rail. They don’t pay any attention to high ridership on existing trains nor do they pay any attention to high oil prices or high unemployment. Sadly, many California journalists, as with journalists around the country, have become inherently conservative in the sense that they see their job as to defend the status quo from change.
Vartabedian’s article is a classic example, full of scaremongering about the HSR project’s impact on 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?”
This is bullshit. Sorry, but we have to tell the truth here. Bakersfield High will survive the bullet train. It’s OK if a building has to be moved or rebuilt. That happens all the time at schools, especially older ones.
Don’t believe me? I attended a high school in Orange County that was actually the second campus – the original one, a classic 1920s-era building, was deemed structurally unsound in the early 1960s. It was torn down and replaced. In the 1990s, the new campus lost a significant portion of its land to a freeway expansion. This was while I was a student there, and it had no effect at all on our education or our ability to enjoy our high school years.
If all of Bakersfield High were being targeted for demolition then I could understand Vartabedian’s scaremongering. But it’s not. Anyone who says so is being disingenuous. And Vartabedian’s article, by implying the school may not survive the train, is misleading his readers. BHS will be fine.
Vartabedian’s article assumes that Bakersfield cannot adapt to HSR and therefore all it will bring is pain. Nowhere does he discuss the benefits of HSR – the jobs it will bring to a county with 13.7% unemployment, the new economic opportunities that come with being just an hour from downtown LA (closer than many Inland Empire cities, factoring in traffic). Worse, he implies that those who might have their properties taken would not receive compensation for it:
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.”
While I support the missions of these churches, you know what would help more than blankets? Jobs. HSR brings jobs and lots of them to Kern County. Nothing else on the horizon has the potential to provide as much job creation as HSR does. Not just short-term construction jobs, but lasting and long-term jobs that stem from saving on oil costs. Other mid-size cities along HSR routes, like Ciudad Real in Spain, have seen significant job growth as a result of the trains. That is Bakersfield’s future.
Vartabedian’s article, however, implies that the present is just fine. 13.7% unemployment and a large jobless population is just fine, he says, as long as it means the Industrial Arts building can be saved.
Most students likely don’t mind. I’m sure they like the Industrial Arts building just as it is. But they too want jobs. They’ll want to be able to stay in Bakersfield, raise a family, and send their kids to BHS and become Drillers just like they were. Right now that’s going to be hard to do. Bakersfield is cut off from the mainstream of the global economy. Just over the Grapevine is a central node of that global economic network. It’s too far and too expensive to access it by car.
A bullet train makes all the difference, opening the SoCal job market up to Bakersfield residents and bringing the global economy over the hill to Kern County. It’s hard to imagine anything more important to the city’s future.
Yes, HSR will have impacts. But those can be mitigated and dealt with, especially if the benefits are worth it. For whatever reason, Ralph Vartabedian has no clue what those benefits are, and has no interest in finding out. And for whatever reason, the LA Times seems content to let him mislead their readers that HSR offers only downsides and never any upsides.