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Tuesday, Feb 26 2013 06:06 PM

Council committee advocates full-court press on highway trash

BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

In what will be welcome news to those who decry the swaths of litter along stretches of state highways through Bakersfield, the city and a host of other players are making a full-court press to attack the problem, pushing forward agreements to funnel more than $500,000 to trash clean-up efforts and looking at ways to step up law enforcement against litterbugs.

At a meeting Tuesday of the Community Services Committee, City Council members Jacquie Sullivan and Bob Smith voted to send agreements to the full City Council to use $250,000 from the California Department of Transportation to hire workers from the Bakersfield Homeless Center to pick up litter along highways 99, 58 and 178 within Bakersfield city limits. Caltrans is still working out details of its agreement with the city.

A separate but related agreement between the city and the Bakersfield Homeless Center could move forward even sooner. The board of the homeless center will consider it at their meeting next week, said CEO Louis Gill.

Under the agreements, residents from the Homeless Center would be paid minimum wage to pick up litter, and Caltrans would carry out traffic control, such as closing lanes to protect workers picking up trash. Median island cleanups would be limited, however, said Public Works Director Raul Rojas, because medians are often narrow and dangerous.

Besides the funding from Caltrans, directors of the Kern Council of Governments last week decided to move ahead with using excess money in a fund for maintaining roadside call boxes for anti-litter efforts. The idea, initially, is to give $100,000 each to the city, Kern County and the California Highway Patrol to combat littering, said KernCOG Executive Director Ahron Hakimi. Negotiations with the city for that funding will start this week, Hakimi said, and KernCOG hopes to review draft agreements next month.

Trash along the highways through Bakersfield, and public complaints about it, has been building since a contract with Caltrans for inmates from the now-closed Shafter Community Correctional Facility to pick up trash ended in 2011. Volunteers who pick up trash are limited to highway ramps, and Caltrans staff have said they only can do intermittent clean-ups because of other priorities. That situation has spurred the city, Caltrans, the Keep Bakersfield Beautiful Committee and others to come up with new ideas.

"We're on the verge of something, I think, that's very exciting, which is a system-wide freeway litter solution," said Sal Moretti, superintendent of solid waste for the city, of the agreements. And the moves are just in time, he said.

"The problem has been getting worse," Moretti said. "The public outcry has been picking up lately. ... So the timing couldn't be better for what we're going to propose."

"This is really a unique arrangement in the state," John Liu, deputy district director for maintenance and operations for Caltrans District 6, told the committee about the agreement with the city.

All the agreements are expected to come before the City Council in the next few months, several people at the meeting said.

The committee discussed several other ideas to combat litter, including more law enforcement against litterbugs.

Assistant Bakersfield Police Chief Lyle Martin said the department met last week with representatives from the California Highway Patrol to target litter, especially from uncovered loads of trash.

"They are committed to partnering with us to address uncovered loads on (highways) 58 and 99," Martin said of the CHP.

Other ideas discussed were how to address broken sprinklers and dead vegetation along the roadways. The sprinkler systems Caltrans maintains are complex and difficult to repair, Liu said. However, it's possible that in the future, Caltrans could shift some of the funding it uses to maintain the sprinklers to the city, if the city took over that job, he said. Also, representatives from KGET spoke about plans to recognize, through televised public service announcements, private sector donations through the non-profit Bakersfield Foundation for litter clean-up by homeless center residents.

The third member of the Community Services Committee has yet to be appointed; that spot is slated to be filled by the next Ward 1 council member.

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