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Friday, Feb 01 2013 07:30 PM

Valley-to-coast drivers loving the new 46

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The traffic was light in both directions of Highway 46 at Blackwells Corner Thursday afternoon, northwest of Bakersfield. Many sections of 46 are now 2 lanes in both directions making the highway potentially safer and less congested. The large, colorful cutout of the past iconic actor James Dean is ever present in front of the Texaco.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Vivian Logan has been able to drive Highway 46 to the Central Coast a few times since New Year's Day 2010.

But it is never easy for her.

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Two years ago, a head-on collision near the Kern-San Luis Obispo county line claimed the life of her husband, Carl "Curtis" Logan, put her in the hospital for six months, killed two people she didn't know and will keep the man who caused it behind bars for most of a decade.

So she drives cautiously, staying in the slow lane and watching oncoming traffic closely.

"I think that the fact I didn't remember the accident was a blessing to me," Logan said. "I don't remember anything before I woke up in Stanford Medical Center."

It's tragic stories like Logan's that spawned a years-long, expensive effort to "Fix 46."

More than $103 million in state and federal money has widened long stretches of the two-lane route to four lanes. The most recent project segment was opened to the public earlier this month.

Logan said the road does seem safer. Work has added a wide divider between the two directions of traffic, allowed for speed limits that don't fluctuate and created room for people to pass slower traffic.

It's something former state Sen. Dean Florez, a chief "Fix 46" cheerleader, is proud of having accomplished with many other partners.

"I'm really pleased that we kept our promise that the four lanes would occur," he said. "It's like night and day. It's not the old Highway 46. It shows that government can work when we're all working in the same direction."

DRIVE

It has taken 14 years of campaigning and careful hoarding of funds by local transportation planners and Caltrans to get 27 miles of Highway 46 widened.

The route is a major economic and recreation connection between the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast, carrying tourists and heavy truck traffic through the coastal mountains.

Robert Ball, planning director for the Kern Council of Governments, said it's a "nationally significance goods movement corridor," taking commercial truck traffic that comes into the valley from the rest of the nation on Highway 58 -- the only route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that is open year-round -- to Highway 101, the Central Coast and the southern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Bad accidents happen everywhere, but collisions on two-lane rural highways like 46 can be exceptionally brutal.

And the old Highway 46, with its mix of slow commercial trucks and impatient drivers on the way to and from the beach, has been slapped over and over again with the nickname "Blood Alley" for its high-profile, deadly crashes.

In 1999, after a nasty July collision on Highway 46 claimed the life of a university student from Bakersfield and severely injured the Waskis, a well-known family of four, local officials called for immediate funding of road improvements.

The most vocal of those leaders was then-Assemblyman Florez, D-Shafter. He didn't land much money for the route immediately, but convinced transportation officials to move the route up in the priority list when funding did become available.

Over time, the money trickled in from a variety of sources and environmental work and road design was completed. In 2009 -- after a $92 million federal highway grant landed by retiring Congressman Bill Thomas pushed the route's funding over the top -- work to widen the road began in earnest.

Today, Florez said, he remains proud of the bipartisan work that he, Thomas and former state Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, did to keep the project alive and on track.

He said it took constant reminders to government and multiple agencies keeping focused.

ONCOMING

It was 10 a.m. on New Year's Day 2010 and Vivian, then 69, and her husband, 71, were on their way from Bakersfield to the Central Coast to see their daughter and grandchildren.

According to California Highway Patrol reports, they were nearing the San Luis Obispo County line when Erculano Hernandez of Delano, driving drunk in the opposite lane, slammed into the back of a Honda Pilot in front of him and launched the Pilot across the yellow line and into the path of the Logans' Chevy pickup.

The collision was devastating.

The driver of the Pilot, Richard Jung, 21, of Shandon and his mother, Hyun Kim, 49, died at the scene.

The Logans were airlifted to different hospitals.

Curtis died at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno later that day. Vivian suffered massive lower body injuries and had to learn to walk again.

Hernandez was not injured. He was eventually convicted of three counts of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to nine years in prison.

Logan continues to serve a different sentence.

It was hard "to come home and not have your spouse there to help you through it," she said. "If it hadn't been for my children, I don't know how I would have gotten through it."

She forgave Hernandez, she said at his sentencing. But she equates what he did with recent gun violence in schools.

"When they make the decision to drink and drive, they might as well have a gun in their hand," Logan said.

AWESOME

Still, say those who drive Highway 46 regularly, the new improvements to the route have made a massive difference in its safety and eased the tension they feel on the drive.

"I've been driving every week for eight years," said Martin Croad, who owns an electrical contracting business in Bakersfield but drives the route on the weekends, commuting to the winery he and his wife own on the west side of Paso Robles.

Croad said he expected some improvement from the widening project. But the work has more than exceeded his expectations.

"It's just so much easier. It's awesome," he said.

He's seen the wild driving that happened on the two-lane road. He once watched a family in a tiny car try to pass a big rig, only to realize they couldn't make it.

The driver veered off the side of the road, Croad said, "spun around a few times and sat there in the dust."

Weekend warriors hauling dune buggies on trailers back to Bakersfield from the off-roading areas on the coast on Sundays would often make risky passes in the hurry to get home.

Now, Croad said, things are much better.

The extra lane lets those people around commercial trucking rigs and even when the route is only two-lanes wide, people will wait to pass because they know four-lane roadway is ahead, he said.

"There's so much less tendency to pass," Croad said.

HOPE

Vivian Logan tries not to dwell on the crash that killed her husband and changed her life.

But she returned a call from a reporter, she said, in the hopes that she can make a difference for someone else -- whether they are driving on Highway 46 or any other road.

Another daughter lives in Exeter in Tulare County and she's driven narrow, two-lane Highway 65 often.

She's seen the same dangerous driving -- high speeds and risky passing -- on that route as well.

"They are in too big of a hurry. It's lack of patience and a lack of concern for life," she said.

Her messages to people are simple: Slow down. Don't drink and drive.

"Always be mindful of life -- yours and other people's. It is not worth getting five minutes ahead on the freeway -- not when you think of the price you would pay."

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