BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Opponents say a street-widening project that will destroy an historic residential neighborhood, snarl a Bakersfield business district violate environmental laws and fly in the face of California's transportation goals.
"This is a $70 million project that is an unnecessary waste of money," opposition leader Vanessa Vangel said in an interview. "It will destroy an historic neighborhood, destroy its cohesion, destroy 242 mature trees, remove 293 downtown parking spaces, and data clearly show that traffic on 24th has declined and continues to decline. None of their projected data is coming true.
"There is absolutely no need for this project."
The 24th Street Improvement Project, a joint effort by the California Department of Transportation and the City of Bakersfield, is part of the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, meant to address rapid population growth and relieve stress on aging transportation infrastructure.
Caltrans plans to widen a stretch of highway from State Route 58 to State Route 178.
"It's an entirely retrograde project you'd expect to see 20 to 30 years ago, not in 2016," plaintiffs' attorney Jamie Hall, with the Channel Law Group of Beverly Hills, told Courthouse News in an interview.
"The trend is to undo many of the wrongs of the 20th century, making communities more livable, walk-able, keeping residential communities intact."
However, Hall said: "This puts cars over people."
Vangel has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. She has spearheaded the opposition movement since 2012, though her home is six houses south of the area, and therefore safe.
Thomas Roads Improvement Program (TRIP) spokeswoman Janet Wheeler said the $46 million project is needed to ease traffic congestion in downtown Bakersfield.
"Twenty-Fourth Street serves as the entryway to Bakersfield's central business district and currently operates well over capacity, with traffic volumes exceeding nearly every other six-lane arterial in metropolitan Bakersfield," Wheeler wrote in an email. "The project would add a lane in each direction, improve the 24th Street-Oak Street intersection, and make other improvements along the corridor."
With a population of nearly 375,000, Bakersfield is California's ninth-largest city. Its primary transportation infrastructure was completed in the mid-1970s, when its population was only 77,000.
Widening 24th Street "has been the subject of studies, community meetings and transportation planning documents for more than 30 years," Wheeler wrote. "Without the 24th Street Improvement Project, the current bottleneck on 24th Street will be further exacerbated."
Bakersfield and Caltrans certified the first environmental impact report for the project in February 2014. Citizens Against the 24th Street Widening Project challenged the report, claiming it violated several provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act.
The court agreed in September 2015, and ordered the city to redo the reports. The new study was circulated for comment last year and was certified on June 8.
But Citizens Against claims the new report is just as defective as the old one.
One of the biggest problems they have with the new environment impact survey is its treatment of traffic. Though the report claimed that peak traffic levels would increase by 33 percent between 2008 and 2015, new real-time data show that traffic actually decreased during that time and continues to do so, according to the complaint.
But the Bakersfield City Council refuses to acknowledge this data, or take into account new developments like the High Speed Rail, because the council is heavily invested in the project, attorney Hall said.