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Saturday, Jun 08 2013 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: Anxieties ramp up over freeway shortcomings

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    Photo Illustration courtesy of Thomas Roads Improvement Program A state commission last week approved $24 million for the Truxtun Tie-in - the upper portion of roads featured in this photo illustration - which is part of Bakersfield's Westside Parkway project. The roadway cutting through the middle of the picture is the Mohawk Street Extension, currently under construction. Truxtun Avenue runs alongside the riverbed on the right side of the picture, where it will connect with the Mohawk extension and, closer to downtown, the Truxtun Tie-in. The Westside Parkway itself, a new east-west freeway now under construction, is seen in the lower left of the picture, below the Mohawk extension. The freeway will carry drivers west to Allen Road and, eventually, beyond.

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By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

As painful as the impending extension of Highway 58 will be (no matter which route is chosen), the one thing I think we all expected was that it would enhance traffic flow.

Turns out things are a touch more complicated.

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Lois Henry is on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.


Read archived columns by Lois Henry at Bakersfield.com/henry.

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You can go to the TRIP (Thomas Roads Improvement Program) website to see what's happening with the myriad projects that are funded or partially funded by money secured by former Congressman Bill Thomas.

However, the link for the Centennial Corridor project, which is the Highway 58 extension, takes you to the state's website which offers very little in the way of reports.

There are maps of all the alternatives, however.


Closing the ramps from Highway 99 to Stockdale Highway and Brundage lane will, of course, inconvenience a lot of folks.

But it's going to be a huge headache for Kaiser Permanente, which has its main complex right at Stockdale and 99.

Dan McReynolds, Kaiser's Chief Financial Officer, stressed that Kaiser agrees with the need to increase east-west traffic flow through Bakersfield and believes the 58 extension is a necessary project.

But the HMO was unaware until a few months ago of the planned ramp closures.

"Even when they released their preferred alignment, we weren't aware of the impact," he said.

The five-acre complex at Stockdale houses the company's urgent care, pharmacy, lab cardiology and radiology departments. Not to mention its occupational health services center, pediatrics, numerous family medicine offices and more.

In 2012, the urgent care had 50,000 visits.

It's a busy place.

And while Caltrans' Rick Helgeson told me the agency is only looking at a partial acquisition of Kaiser's property, meaning just a slice is needed for the freeway, Kaiser CEO Dave Womack said the company is already starting to look for new digs.

"We need freeway access," he said.

Womack and McReynolds said Kaiser had met with Caltrans in February when it first got details of the project impacts and again in April.

At the last meeting, Kaiser broached the idea of condemnation.

It got no commitment from Caltrans.

Caltrans suggested the company's concerns be submitted during the public comment period after the environmental documents are released.

That's expected to happen in late summer or fall.

The Kaiser complex first opened on Stockdale in 1988.

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Yes, the extension will allow drivers on 58 to get further through Bakersfield than Real Road, if not all the way to Interstate 5. At least not yet.

But there are a couple wrinkles I don't think everyone knows about. I didn't.

Wrinkle No. 1: There isn't enough money to build a full complement of onramps to Highway 99 north of 58.

People heading south on 99 who want to continue west on 58 will have to get off on Rosedale Highway, jog around on Mohawk and then jump back on the freeway (which, at that point will be the Westside Parkway). Same thing with people heading east on 58 who want to go north on 99: they'll have to use surface streets.

Those two onramps would have cost about $200 million alone, according to Caltrans. Funding for the entire project is only $700 million.

Besides, according to Caltrans there isn't enough traffic yet to justify building the onramps, even if money were no object.

Wrinkle No. 2: No matter what route is chosen or onramps are built, the Stockdale Highway offramp from 99 and the Brundage Lane off- and onramps to 99 will be closed. Forever.

The ramps were considered only temporary fixes when 58 dead-ended some 30 years ago.

Caltrans plans to take care of that bit of "housekeeping" when the extension project starts.

Those particular ramps were allowed only until the 58/99 interchange was complete, explained Kern Council of Governments Director Ahron Hakimi.

Uh, one could argue that since the interchange will be missing two key onramps, it's not complete.

Reducing our access to and from 99 at the same time we're told we have to wait for more money to build those onramps has a deja-vu-all-over-again feeling to it.

I know big projects like this are built in phases and it's better to get at least one phase done than nothing, as Caltrans Senior Transportation Engineer Rick Helgeson told me.

But it's more than a little disconcerting in a town where freeways seem to start and stop on a whim.

Hakimi, for his part, said it is his goal to get the money to make sure the ramps are built.

While the ramp moving southbound 99 traffic onto 58 is much less expensive than the opposite ramp, Helgeson told me Caltrans wouldn't build one without the other.

Which means we could be waiting a while before we get all the money we need.

And that could translate into a big pain for yours truly since the 58-99 traffic will be routed onto Rosedale Highway until those ramps are built.

Rosedale Highway, grrrrr.

Hakimi and the Caltrans guys kept telling me it's actually a shorter distance than the onramps will be, if built. That's because 58 will swoop slightly south before connecting to 99.

Shorter in space, maybe, but not in time.

There's a big difference between making a three mile trip at freeway speeds and making even a one mile trip at Rosedale Highway speeds.

There are multiple traffic lights between where folks would get off 99 and back on to 58, I reminded them.

And, oh yeah, there's the Landco Spur! (The bain of my existence.)

That's the train crossing that blocks up traffic every so often, usually when I'm late for work.

Hakimi conceded the project does have a few warts.

"On the surface, yes, it seems like a step backward," he said of closing freeway access and waiting to build the onramps. "But the bigger picture is traffic volume on (Rosedale and Stockdale) will decrease when the project is built. It will go down dramatically."

Others involved in the project reminded me that no one ever thought we'd see a 58 extension project in our lifetimes. And here we are so keep some perspective.

OK. OK. I'll try and remember that while I'm fuming in my car, stuck on Rosedale Highway.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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