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Saturday, Mar 22 2014 09:00 PM

New transportation plan looks beyond new freeways

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Traffic moves along on the new Westside Parkway near Calloway Drive south in this August 2013 photo. The new east-west freeway began to take shape in 2009.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A silhouetted cyclist gets in a good late evening ride along the bike path near Truxtun Extension in this November 2013 file photo.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Until now, Kern's transportation future has revolved around big, expensive highway projects. Think freeway widening work and road extensions.

But the latest strategies on how to move the county's people and products over the next 26 years take a route considered much healthier for the region's air quality.

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SPEAK UP

Members of the public have until 5 p.m. May 6 to make comments on a series of documents spelling out plans for transportation expenditures in Kern County through 2040.

The documents are the 2014 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy, its accompanying environmental review, the 2015 Federal Transportation Improvement Program, a corresponding Air Quality Conformity Analysis and the Regional Housing Needs Allocation Plan.

Copies of the documents can be found at Kern COG's Bakersfield office (1401 19th St., Suite 300), at all county libraries and online at kerncog.org.

The agency has also scheduled two public hearings to gather comments on the documents:

* 6 p.m. April 15 at California City Council chambers, 21000 Hacienda Blvd., California City, 93505; and,

* 6:30 p.m. April 17, Kern COG Board Room 1, 1401 19th St., Suite 300, Bakersfield, 93301.

Emphasizing pedestrians, bicycles and freight trains over cars, trucks and tractor-trailers, a five-inch stack of papers recently put up for public review attempts to rebalance the county's transportation spending priorities.

The core document, Kern Council of Governments' 2014 Regional Transportation Plan, doesn't do away with spending on roads. For example, it would continue construction of the Centennial Corridor to link Highway 58 with Interstate 5 via the current Westside Parkway.

But Kern COG says the plan's overall vision is to finish existing projects, fix infrastructure in need of repair and maintain the rest.

Executive Director Ahron Hakimi said that represents a big shift from the county's previous transportation plans.

"It's not business as usual anymore," he said Friday.

Here are some of the plan's highlights:

* A 700 percent increase in spending on bike and pedestrian facilities;

* A 32 percent cut in farmland that would be converted to housing outside urban areas;

* An overall reduction in emissions, including nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon monoxide; and,

* Land-use and transportation planning that would put 71 percent of county homes near quality public transit, as compared with 57 percent under the current plan from 2011.

The changes contained in the plan are not entirely Kern COG's doing. They reflect a pair of state laws mandating lower air emissions and more sustainable communities, both of which discourage big highway projects.

The agency says public input played a big role in shaping the plan, too. Besides reaching out to local residents at dozens of public meetings, it surveyed more than 8,000 people about their ideas for transportation investment.

But more than that, Kern COG's plan recognizes that less money is available for transportation projects. It points out an 11 percent gap between the county's needs over the next quarter century and the amount of state and federal funding it's likely to receive.

The plan lists several possible ways that money could be raised, such as an odometer-based vehicle user fee, future state bonds or a county sales tax increase.

SEEKING BALANCE

Whether the plan strikes the right balance may become the subject of some debate.

Kern County Roads Commissioner Craig Pope agreed that non-motorized modes of transportation need attention. But he said significant investments must be made in roads, too, so that industry can continue to haul its goods to market in tractor-trailers.

"You still have to have the infrastructure roads," he said.

What's more, money spent paving dirt roads in eastern Kern County will end up reducing dust and improving air quality. That needs to be in the transportation plan, too, he said.

"I don't think we're quite there yet" with a fully refined spending plan, he said.

Hakimi and his staff at Kern COG noted that economic development is among the plan's guiding influences.

Part of that is investing in rail improvements that would help move petroleum and farm products out of Kern County.

The plan proposes to invest in railroad siding at Shafter's Paramount Logistics Park, a distribution hub featuring large warehouses run by Target and other large retailers.

Not only would such spending help attract companies and jobs to the area, Hakimi said, but it would encourage greater use of rail shipments instead of tractor-trailers, which emit more pollution than trains.

Shafter City Manager Scott Hurlbert said that while more spending on roads may also be necessary, local rail investment can be a powerful economic stimulus.

"As far as an economics stimulator for the county as a whole, bringing new types of businesses that require that sort of rail access is a benefit for everyone," he said. "It brings jobs, it brings diversity to the economic base."

Some of the plan's proposed transportation solutions involve using technology already available. Among these are freeway on-ramp metering that lets drivers onto highways one at a time, and smartphone apps that inform drivers of current traffic conditions.

Hakimi said these technologies may lessen the need for larger investments by maximizing the county's existing roads.

"There's plenty of capacity left in our system with the (right) technology," he said.

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