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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Group Says Calif. Drives Backward on Traffic

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.


"They don't want to open that Pandora's box," he said. "The city was given a huge chunk of money, pork barrel money, and someone wants to push it through even if it doesn't make sense: 'Let's build that bridge to nowhere.'

"They spent millions to buy the homes, putting the cart before the horse, and now they're saying they must do it."

Vangel said she is frustrated that the City Council refuses to do its job.

Though the council hired CEQA expert Susan O'Carroll, who submitted a 100-page comment detailing more than 125 violations in the environmental impact report, the council approved it anyway — and some members acknowledged that they never read the report, Vangel said.

"How can anyone approve anything without reading it? That's just wrong. They made their minds up a long time ago. There's a lot of corruption and collusion, stuff going on behind closed doors."

Vangel said that because the dirt in the project area has not disturbed for years, digging it up could release spores that cause Valley Fever, a debilitating disease.

"Caltrans' response was, if you must go outside, just wear a dust mask," Vangel scoffed.

Her group asked the Kern County Court to vacate the project approvals and decertify the environmental impact report. They also seek an injunction preventing any work on the project until the defendants prepare a legally adequate impact report that complies with CEQA.

Hall and Vangel are also challenging another Bakersfield TRIP project, the $300 million Centennial Corridor, which would connect State Route 58 with Interstate 5. They say it would demolish 121 business, 310 housing units, and acres of farmland and wetlands, and the city's already poor air quality will deteriorate.

The two Kern County projects seem at odds with California's intention to pursue a "multimodal transportation system" that ensures social equity, protects human and environmental health, and encourages a prosperous economy, according to the June 2016 Caltrans report, California Transportation Plan 2040.

The plan calls for putting housing closer to job centers, converting entirely to clean energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to pre-1990 levels, investing in safer pedestrian and bicycle networks, and improving roads instead of building new ones.

It's a daunting task, as Californians are driving more than ever, while public transportation ridership has been relatively stagnant for 30 years. The system of 174,989 miles of roads and 25,406 miles of bridges carries 329.5 billion vehicle travel miles each year, a number that keeps increasing as California's population grows, according to a TRIP report on the state's roads.

California's urban roads are in dire straits: Fifty-one percent are rated in poor condition, 39 percent in mediocre or fair condition and a mere 10 percent in good condition. Eighty-five percent of the urban interstates are congested and 30 percent of their pavement is in poor condition, according to the TRIP report.

Increased freight traffic is a big part of the problem. Sixty-seven percent of goods shipped from California are by truck and 20 percent by parcel services: $1.3 trillion in goods are shipped from sites in California each year and another $1.3 trillion to sites in the state each year. Trucks produce almost half of the state's nitrous oxide and diesel particulate matter emissions.

Congestion and poor road conditions also increase traffic fatalities. From 2010 to 2014, 14,437 people died in traffic accidents, averaging 2,887 fatalities a year, according to the report.

Widening lanes and adding pedestrian and bicycle pathways could help reduce fatalities. Each dollar spent on road improvement results in $5.20 reduced vehicle maintenance costs, improves safety and traffic flow and reduces fuel consumption, TRIP says in the report.

Fixing the roads will require $59 billion for pavement, $30 billion for bridge repair, and $100 billion for enhancement and expansion — money the state is struggling to find, according to the report.

The State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which funds many transportation projects, is facing a $1.5 billion funding shortfall due to huge drops in gasoline prices. The state Transportation Commission was forced to adopt a five-year plan that cuts $754 million and delays another $755 million in project spending, the largest funding reduction in 20 years, according to a May report on the Commission's website.

Budget cuts cause delays or cancellations for key improvement projects statewide. In its Project Green Light report, TRIP found that of 125 important projects, only 14 of have a green light, meaning that funding will be available by 2020, while 69 have yellow lights, or only partial funding, and 42 have red lights — limited or no funding.

For Bakersfield, the budget cuts mean the Centennial Corridor project will see a one year delay of $33 million, Caltrans spokeswoman Vanessa Wiseman said in an email.

Caltrans spent around $600 million on STIP projects in the past 10 years, but that spending level has been cut now, given the use of onetime bond funds and the fall in gas prices. Capital funding for state highway projects averages around $3.7 billion a year, excluding support costs, Wiseman said.

"The future of California's transportation system remains uncertain unless California modifies its revenue model for financing and maintaining its infrastructure," Wiseman wrote in the email. "California's state highway system takes about $8 billion to maintain annually, though only $2.3 billion is available for maintenance, leaving a $5.7 billion annual shortfall. And this is a shortfall in funding to maintain just the system we currently have."

To address the funding shortfall, California launched a 9-month road-charge pilot program on July 1 to study whether taxing drivers by the number of miles driven or distance traveled would be a viable alternative to the gas tax. More than 5,000 volunteers are expected to participate. Reporting options include time permits, mileage permits, odometer charges, and automated mileage reporting, according to the Caltrans website.

Given California's transportation goals and its transportation funding cuts, the 24th Street Widening Project makes no sense, Vangel said.

She suspects that the city has been "playing dirty," starting with its preferred alternative — the widening project — and rigging environmental studies.

"Once you demolish, you can't put Humpty Dumpty together again. You can't undo it," Vangel said.

Though frustrated, she is inspired by the story of Robin Levitt and Patricia Walkup, who stopped Caltrans from rebuilding the Central Freeway in San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Vangel asked the Bakersfield Historical Society and the Sierra Club for help fighting the project, but said both organizations "could care less."

Downtown businesses are complacent, though the detours and construction work will hurt them, she said.

"The businesses need to wake up and smell the dirt," Vangel said. "It's a fight that needs to be fought."

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