California's infrastructure czar learns of Kern's challenges in roundtable

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Oct. 27—Portions of the $100 billion budget controlled by California infrastructure czar Antonio Villaraigosa include securing funding for the high-speed rail project and clean transportation, he said Wednesday in an interview ahead of a roundtable discussion with local leaders.

Villaraigosa, the former mayor of the city of Los Angeles, said 80 percent of the state's infrastructure funds will go to transportation, while the rest will be reserved for energy, water and broadband access. Bakersfield was the 22nd city Villaraigosa visited to cull regional concerns about infrastructure and transportation and understand how to allocate the money.

"Kern County will get a piece of the money, without a question," Villaraigosa said before getting a tour of local infrastructure projects such as the Centennial Corridor and Bitwise.

Villaraigosa maintained California's infrastructure needs an update. He cited a need to streamline the state's permitting processes to expedite projects, an issue that must be addressed at the local level as well.

When asked about Newsom's administration policies hurting Kern, Villaraigosa pointed to $83 million earmarked in the budget for a new energy center at Cal State Bakersfield and its ability to help the region.

"Places like Bakersfield are poised to continue to be energy leaders — just clean energy leaders," Villaraigosa said.

The stalled high-speed rail project will get funding, he added. He said he understands concerns about rail tracks eating up valuable farmland and its opportunity to create long-term jobs for the Central Valley.

The train's connectivity to major California cities will propel economic growth, he said.

Villaraigosa also held a roundtable discussion with representatives of the Kern Community College District, Golden Empire Transit, transportation experts from Kings County, the Dolores Huerta Foundation and more to gauge regional concerns.

Attendees said afterward the talk was productive and vital in order to explain pressing local concerns. Reporters were precluded from attending the meeting.

Trudy Gerald, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development for the Kern Community College District, said she talked about KCCD's efforts to prepare the workforce to meet future needs, specifically when transitioning the local economy to clean energy.

"If we are talking about electric vehicles, someone's got to build them, someone's got to maintain them," Gerald added.

Karen King, CEO of Golden Empire Transit, said she wanted to tell Villaraigosa about challenges encountered when complying with a California Air Resources Board mandate to use zero-emission buses, the lack of funds to achieve this goal and a lack of infrastructure to support charging buses.

Asked about the conflict between King's concerns and Villaraigosa's intention to transition to clean energy, King admitted every solution has not been figured out yet.

"They're not easy solutions, they're not quick solutions," King said, while adding it will take collaboration among state agencies to create the best outcome.

King noted the conversation also included issues with access to broadband in rural communities

"He seems to be very tuned in to the issues of the Central Valley," King said.

Gustavo Aguirre, organizing director with the Center for Race, Poverty & The Environment also mentioned poor roads and sidewalks in rural areas and the need for upgrades.

He also mentioned areas like Shafter face increased pollution when diesel trucks travel through, and the need for alternative routes for such vehicles.

Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kern Council of Governments, agreed with Villaraigosa that environmental reviews for projects must be accelerated up to speed up the approval process. Approvals can take years or even decades, he added.

Hakimi specifically mentioned embracing exemptions and exclusions currently in place to expedite projects.

Another item he brought up was a federal grant that would add trucking lanes on Highway 58.

Hakimi also talked with Villaraigosa about Kern's unique landscape and how it revolves around moving goods and people.

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.