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Friday, May 09 2014 11:00 AM

Caltrans: Alternative B still best Centennial path

BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Alternative B through the Westpark neighborhood remains Caltrans' preferred and least expensive route for Centennial Corridor, the controversial freeway link between Highway 58 and the Westside Parkway -- but would require the demolition of far more homes and businesses than previously thought.

With its release Friday of the project's draft Environmental Impact Report, the state transportation agency found Alternative B would improve traffic throughout metropolitan Bakersfield -- but as currently planned would require the demolition of 200 single-family homes, 110 multiple-family structures and 121 commercial buildings.

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Read the EIR for yourself at http://tinyurl.com/l8yyohq.

Mail written comments to: Jennifer H. Taylor, Office Chief, Central Region, Environmental Southern San Joaquin Valley, 855 M St., Suite 200, Fresno, CA 93721.

Share your opinion at the public hearing, 4-7 p.m. June 11, in the rotunda at the Kern County Administrative Center, 1115 Truxtun Ave.

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Previously, the freeway alternative through southwest Bakersfield was thought to require the demolition of more than 199 single-family homes, 16 multiple-family structures and 36 businesses.

Currently, Caltrans also estimates Alternative B would require 293 full parcel acquisitions, 129 partial parcel acquisitions -- and could displace an estimated 961 people.

The EIR's release -- 15 months late because working with state and federal agencies took longer than expected -- expands earlier demolition numbers by nearly 50 percent.

However, a Caltrans officials said those figures could come down once the EIR is approved.

"As we move forward getting closer to construction and final design, they'll tighten up those lines. There may be parcels now that we assumed would be full takes but they may only need sliver takes," said Christine Cox-Kovacevich, Caltrans' central region environmental division chief.

"It's better for us to overestimate the number than underestimate as we go into the hearing, than to tell somebody that you're not going to be impacted and then you are."

City Manager Alan Tandy said he was happy the EIR is being circulated -- and referred all questions to Caltrans, which is the lead agency on the project.

Caltrans will take public comments on the EIR through July 8, and will hold a public hearing from 4 to 7 p.m. June 11 at the Kern County Administrative Center.

Afterward, Cox-Kovacevich said Caltrans will answer those comments, and when answers are complete, the District 6 director will decide whether or not to proceed with the project.

A decision is expected by year's end, and if the project is approved construction could begin by mid-2016.

WHY IT'S ALTERNATIVE B

Alternative B's recommended path would have "adverse effects to the character of ... southwest Bakersfield and (the) Westpark neighborhood," which it would bisect, the EIR says.

It also would raise noise levels above the generally acceptable 62-70 decibel range in 484 outdoor areas, which Cox-Kovacevich said can be mitigated with soundwalls and landscaping.

With the entire state in the grips of a drought, Caltrans is considering moving to Arizona-style hardscape for future freeways. Centennial Corridor, though, would get actual, albeit drought-resistant, landscaping.

Caltrans has considered Alternatives A and C to be unfeasible since December 2012.

Alternative A, a connector southwest of Alternative B, would affect Rancho Vista Historic District. Alternative C, a connector slightly to the northeast of B, would impact Saunders Park.

Both the park and the historic district are protected under Federal Highway Administration guidelines.

Alternative A would demolish the most structures, and at $691 million in right-of-way and construction costs is the most expensive.

Alternative C has the fewest demolitions, but at $665.5 million for right-of-way and construction is the second most expensive proposal.

If either is moved to avoid historic houses or the park, it effectively becomes Alternative B, the cheapest choice at $570 million for right-of-way and design -- although Cox-Kovacevich said it wasn't picked for its cost.

Bakersfield's share of that pricetag isn't included in the new proposed 2014-2015 fiscal year budget because it won't get built by then.

In the proposed budget, city officials do propose spending $559,737 in design costs during the 2015-2016 fiscal year. That money would come from development fees.

During the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the city proposes spending $325.3 million on construction -- nearly $35.2 million in federal earmarks brought to Bakersfield by former Congressman Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield. The remainder, about $290.1 million, would come from utility and development fees.

TRAFFIC WOES

The cost is worth it, according to Caltrans' EIR, which finds area traffic levels are at dangerously high levels. Highway 99 between Highway 58 and Airport Drive is the state's third most congested highway segment, it reports.

Kern County motorists, the EIR says, also face far more truck traffic than other California drivers. Trucks account for 27 percent of county traffic, three times the statewide average of 9 percent.

The EIR also cites state Department of Finance projections that by 2035, Bakersfield is expected to have 848,487 residents -- accounting for about 60 percent of Kern County's population.

Its EIR reveals that if Centennial Corridor isn't built, four area freeway segments -- a segment is typically a piece of a freeway between on- and off-ramps -- will be getting "F" traffic grades by 2018.

By 2038, it predicts that number will rise to 16.

Intersections at or near Centennial Corridor will experience much the same, with 25 getting "F" grades in 2018 and 34 getting "F" grades by 2038.

In the traffic world, a D is actually a passing grade -- but an F means gridlock.

Connecting Highway 58 to the Westside Parkway and, someday, to Interstate 5, will keep traffic moving, Caltrans believes.

Westpark resident Robert Braley, who frequently speaks about Centennial Corridor before the Bakersfield City Council, said he lives within six houses of Alternative B and isn't convinced it can be built on budget or is even needed.

"It's not going to solve anything, and the whole point of having this thing is to connect to I-5, but there isn't any traffic to I-5," Braley said. "It's going to be another roadway for no reason."

WILDLIFE IMPACTS

Plants and animals, too, would be adversely affected by the freeway segment -- but Caltrans said it can mitigate those effects.

All three Corridor routes would affect the Swainson's hawk, listed as threatened by the California Department of Fish and Game, and the San Joaquin kit fox, lasted as endangered by the federal government and as threatened by the state.

Cox-Kovacevich said Caltrans hasn't seen any Swainson's hawks in the area, but if it finds any nesting birds during construction it will keep contractors away.

Alternative B affects more kit fox dens than either A or C -- but fewer overall acreage of habitat than A.

Caltrans' plan for kit fox handling is to purchase habitat elsewhere through the city's multiple species habitat conservation plan -- and to help the big-eared hunters get around by bridging the Kern River and the Friant-Kern Canal. Foxes use bridges.

Local wetlands also would be affected by all three alternatives; however, Alternative B would affect the fewest acres.

Cox-Kovacevich said Caltrans is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to minimize impacts, but if necessary, it will do habitat restoration if Alternative B is built.

"We've done all the analysis and here it is -- we're basically laying our cards on the table," Cox-Kovacevich said. "Hopefully, we can lead people to a resolution and we can get a decision on whether the project is worthwhile to move forward."

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