BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearly a year and a half after the loss of inmate crews who picked up trash along Bakersfield's highways, nobody's been able to come up with as good of a clean-up plan.
And it's left visible scars: plastic bags, paper cups, fast food wrappers and other trash piling up on 99 and 58.
"We really need to educate the public on the importance of keeping their community clean. That first impression that people have as they drive through Bakersfield is unfortunately very negative because of the trash."
-- John Enriquez of Keep Bakersfield Beautiful, the city's anti-litter and beautification group
But it's not for lack of trying.
The California Department of Transportation has tried to fit intermittent trash pick-up into its already heavy workload. Volunteers have stepped up their efforts, too. New ideas are being mulled, like having the city hire clean-up workers with state funds.
Authorities say the best solution would be to get those inmate crews back, but that possibility is far from certain.
"When we lost the inmates, you could see the difference ... you could see the decline," said John Enriquez of Keep Bakersfield Beautiful, the city's anti-litter and beautification group. "When we had the inmate program (and) the volunteer efforts, we could stay on top of it. ... And things were looking presentable two years ago."
A contract for prison inmates from the Shafter Community Correctional Facility ended in July 2011. The inmates were paid a small amount to clean up litter along Highways 58 and 99 around Bakersfield and along roadways in Delano, Wasco and Porterville. And they provided a massive amount of labor. Four crews of nine to 12 inmates each, picking up litter six hours a day, five days a week. That totaled at least 1,080 working hours every week.
Now, in the Bakersfield Caltrans office, staff devote about one day a month to litter pickup, and it's mostly reactionary, such as cleaning up homeless encampments, said David Schroeder of Caltrans. That's about 72 hours of work time a month.
Litter pickup competes with all the other tasks the 25 Caltrans road crew employees in Bakersfield do: filling potholes, fixing broken sprinklers, signs and guardrails, answering complaints and repairing facilities when copper wire thieves hit, he said. Those 25 people cover 179 miles of roads and 320 acres of landscaping.
The loss of the inmate crews means "a whole lot more complaints and headaches" for Caltrans, Schroeder said. "We obviously can't address what we've got coming in."
Caltrans had planned to renew its contract with the Shafter prison to provide crews, he said, but then the facility closed with the shift of certain criminals from state to county custody.
The prison, which had housed more than 500 inmates, still stands empty, but recent discussions with the state Department of Corrections to take state prisoners have been encouraging, said Shafter City Manager John Guinn.
"The (agency) just has to figure out whether it fits into their existing plans," Guinn said. "I think we're going to be able to get more information here pretty soon."
As to whether Shafter inmates would again pick up litter, he said, "That's certainly everyone's expectation."
Inmates to do litter pick-up could come from Los Angeles County. Supervisors there are slated to discuss this week a proposal to send at least 512 prisoners to the Taft Community Correctional Facility.
If that happens, those inmates could do litter pick-up on area highways, said Taft City Manager Craig Jones.
But Jones didn't seem to have much confidence Los Angeles County supervisors will make a decision soon.
"They keep putting (a decision) off, but they haven't pulled it (from their agenda) yet," Jones said.
Meanwhile, other groups have been doing what they can to clean up trash along the roads, but it's hard to make up for the loss of inmate crews.
Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall personally leads weekend clean-ups on Highway 99 ramps under Caltrans' Adopt-a-Highway program. Last year, he increased those clean-ups from once a month to twice a month.
Keep Bakersfield Beautiful leads intermittent clean-ups by volunteers and weekly clean-ups by kids sentenced to community service for some offense. The kids pick up trash three times a month on Highway 99 and once a month on Chester Avenue. And there are businesses and individuals who participate in Adopt-a-Highway.
But unlike Caltrans staff and the inmates, volunteers and juvenile offenders can't work on the highways themselves in Bakersfield, only in certain, relatively safer areas, such as on- and off-ramps. That leaves miles and miles untended when they're covered with trash.
Enriquez said he understands litter isn't Caltrans' main responsibility.
"They're pulled in many directions," ranging from maintenance to traffic control when there's an accident, he said. "It's a community problem ... That's why we talk about solutions, the things we can do as a community to not just point fingers at Caltrans."
Caltrans has OK'd six sites in Bakersfield for its Adopt-a-Highway program, and 3 1/2 have been adopted, said Deanna Hornback, a Caltrans coordinator for the program. Adopters for Bakersfield sites commit to six clean-ups a year.
Adopt-a-Highway sites are usually two-mile stretches of roadway that volunteers "adopt" for clean-ups. But Bakersfield highways have been deemed too dangerous for that standard, Hornback said.
"The problem in Bakersfield is the high traffic volumes, high accident rates, steep slopes, the ice plants (that) make it slippery," Hornback said. "(Caltrans) supervisors have determined that it's not safe for adoptions on the mainline (highway)."
Local volunteers are frustrated by that restriction, she conceded.
"Even more important than how it looks is the safety of the people that we're putting out there," she said.
City solutions in works
The city of Bakersfield is working on other ideas, too, which could alleviate trash on the highways between interchanges, places volunteers can't go.
Caltrans has proposed giving Bakersfield the money Caltrans would normally spend on inmate crews if the city would take over some responsibility for litter on highways.
How exactly that would happen is still being sorted out, but it could involve the city hiring contract labor, said John Liu, deputy district director for maintenance and operations for Caltrans District 6. The Bakersfield Homeless Center has been involved in those discussions, Liu and Bakersfield Solid Waste Superintendent Sal Moretti said.
The cost of one inmate crew for one year is about $125,000, Liu said, and roughly half that much is available in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Liu said he suggested the city and Caltrans come up with a contract for this option by July, when the new fiscal year starts and more money would be available.
"This is something that's new for both of us," Liu said. The idea is that such an agreement would include traffic control, temporary signs and other measures to protect workers.
Of course, the easiest, quickest option remains contracting with inmates, Liu said.
"If a prison came on board, we could do that a lot faster because we do those types of contracts all the time," he said. On the other hand, there is "zero indication" that would happen anytime soon.
Without additional hands to work on the highway stretches now, anti-litter advocates are pushing other methods, such as enforcement of litter laws and education.
"We really need to educate the public on the importance of keeping their community clean," Enriquez said. "That first impression that people have as they drive through Bakersfield is unfortunately very negative because of the trash."