Local News

Thursday, Feb 16 2012 07:18 PM

Highway trash piling up following loss of inmate crews

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Vehicles travel east on Highway 58, near the Chester Avenue and H Street off-ramp, in Bakersfield. The trash on the side of the road isn't difficult to find.

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BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

Lifelong Bakersfield resident Russ Johnson said that on a recent drive along Highway 58, he was shocked by the amount of trash along the road.

"It looks like a dump -- literally," Johnson said, describing cups, plastics and bags of trash strewn on either side between Highway 99 and Oswell Street.

"(It's) almost like a third-world county -- that bad," he said. ""It was pretty shocking ... and embarrassing. I'm glad I didn't have anyone with me that's never seen the town."

Turns out Johnson isn't imagining things. There has been more trash along Highways 58 and 99 in the last year.

The California Department of Transportation had been contracting with the Shafter Community Correctional Facility to have inmates it held there via a contract with the state do cleanup along 58 and 99.

But the three-year, $1.36 million contract expired last July, said David Schroeder, a maintenance manager with the Caltrans District 6 office, which covers a large swath of the Central Valley, including Kern and Kings counties.

The contract covered four crews of nine to 12 inmates each, working six hours a day, five days a week. The crews covered Highways 99 and 58 in Bakersfield, as well as in Delano, Wasco and Porterville.

In anticipation that prison realignment approved last year might mean Shafter wouldn't have the inmates needed for work crews, the decision was made to not move forward with a new contract, Schroeder said.

The ongoing prison realignment shifts incarceration of some inmates from state prisons to county jails to cut spending and overcrowding. One consequence was that in November, the city of Shafter-operated facility closed.

Without the inmate work, Caltrans staff has only been able to do intermittent tidying up along 58 and 99, Schroeder said.

"There's been minimal cleanup," he said. "We have to concentrate our forces on potholes, guardrails, signage, things that are going to harm people rather than litter."

But Caltrans is working to restart the contract with the Shafter facility, Schroeder said. His office has sent financial information outlining a potential three-year contract with Shafter to the state Caltrans procurement office for review.

He said he's hoping the Shafter facility will reopen with inmates in time to restart the contract in July.

In the meantime, however, the Shafter facility has no inmates.

Shafter City Manager John Guinn said Shafter is talking with Los Angeles County and other counties about housing some of their inmates at Shafter.

Those prisoners would then do litter pickup.

"If we can open the facility back up, we'll renew those contracts," Guinn said. "Certainly we want to do it, and we believe Caltrans wants to do it."

However, said Guinn, it's too early to speculate about when the Shafter facility will open again.

"We're working on it," he said.

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