Local News

Saturday, Apr 17 2010 12:00 PM

New freeway builds on old alignment

BY GRETCHEN WENNER AND JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writers gwenner@bakersfield.com, jburger@bakersfield.com

Years from now, Bakersfield's "freeway to nowhere" will lose its dead end and Highway 58 will carry drivers to Interstate 5.

Not for a long time, though. Decades, probably.

But with the Westside Parkway finally under construction, a dusty old plan that established a freeway alignment from Mohawk Street to I-5 is getting new life. State transportation officials now plan to link that stretch to Highway 58 and one day adopt it into the state system.

The plan is possible because of the former Kern River Freeway alignment, which city and county officials approved in 1991.

If nothing seems duller than a freeway alignment, keep in mind what happens without one.

Take 58's abrupt halt at the Wild West Shopping Center on Real Road, for example.

The notorious dead end evolved in part because a route west wasn't preserved with an official alignment, said Craig Pope, Kern County's roads commissioner.

Hundreds of homes and businesses will now have to be paved over when the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, eventually selects a route connecting 58 to the eastern tip of the Westside Parkway at Mohawk Street.

When an alignment is in place, planners can prevent development from encroaching on the corridor, Pope said.

That's what happened with what's now the Westside Parkway.

"The use by the city and county of the specific plan line process is allowing the construction of over eight miles of new freeway through a metropolitan area without the taking of one single residence or business," wrote Ted Wright, TRIP program manager for the city of Bakersfield, in an e-mail.

The parkway is actually a segment of the former Kern River Freeway, between Mohawk and Heath Road at Stockdale Highway. Even as Bakersfield grew rapidly in recent years, the freeway's path remained untouched because of the 1991 alignment.

West of Heath Road, the freeway alignment continues -- on paper -- along the north side of the Cross Valley Canal, which runs south of Stockdale Highway. It ends about a half mile west of Enos Lane. Environmental documents currently being drawn up by Caltrans extend the route all the way to I-5.

Caltrans looks at the whole stretch -- from 58 to I-5 -- as a three-part plan it has dubbed the Centennial Corridor Project. (It's a different beast than a former route by the same name once planned for downtown Bakersfield.)

Caltrans officials couldn't say when the environmental reports would be finished, but the process started in fall 2008.

The revival of the old route shows how difficult it is to make new freeways come true.

A few years back, local officials had set aside plans for the controversial Kern River Freeway -- renaming the section between Mohawk and Heath as the Westside Parkway -- and were instead pondering a future I-5 connection along Seventh Standard Road.

But in 2005, former Rep. Bill Thomas secured $630 million in federal highway funds for the metro Bakersfield area. Though the Westside Parkway is being built mostly with state and local funds, the Thomas money dramatically altered regional transportation planning here, bringing together city, county and state officials in the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, or TRIP, offices. That's where the Westside Parkway -- and plans for 58's eventual connection to I-5 -- are being hatched.

Caltrans could, of course, change its mind about building the segments that will connect 58 to I-5. But if the pieces come together, the project's backbone will have been the old Kern River Freeway alignment.

"The county did something right back in the '80s," said Cheryl Casdorph, a planner with Kern County's Planning Department.

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