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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Highway Plan Has Kern County Up in Arms

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - Hundreds of people will lose their homes and businesses and air quality will go from bad to worse if a state project to connect State Route 58 with Interstate 5 goes forward, Bakersfield residents claim in court.

Concerned Citizens about Centennial Corridor sued the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in Kern County Court on Friday, alleging violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Kern County, the city of Bakersfield, and the Kern Council of Governments are named as real parties in interest.

"It's not every day that you see new freeways being constructed. The era of new freeway building in California is at an end - except in Bakersfield," plaintiff's attorney Jamie Hall told Courthouse News.

Though many people believe that CEQA lawsuits are filed simply to stall unpopular projects, this case is a clear example of how the law is designed to work, Hall said.

"This is a very significant public works project that will disrupt neighborhoods, destroy many homes, and sever community cohesion," Hall said.

A total of 121 businesses and 310 housing units will be demolished for the Centennial Corridor, plus acres of farmland and wetlands.

Building a new freeway in an area with some of the worst air quality in the nation is highly "suspect," Hall said.

"The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] wrote to Caltrans and gave the project a failing rating. The irony is that the federal government is funding part of the project, yet the EPA is saying don't do it. In their letter, they said that if it is built, it will decrease the likelihood that Bakersfield will ever meet its air quality objectives," Hall said.

One of the main concerns is that money rather than need is at the foundation of the project, Hall added.

"The analysis that was done was not to figure out the best way. Rather, it was more that 'We have the money, so we'll do the project to spend it and do what we want," the attorney said.

State Route 58 is a 241-mile-long east-west freeway that runs through the California Coastal Ranges, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Tehachapi Mountains between Barstow and Santa Margarita near the U.S. 101 junction. At various points it is known as the Rosa Parks Highway, Bakersfield-McKittrick Highway, Rosedale Highway, and Mojave-Barstow Highway.

The freeway offers good access to Edwards Air Force Base and enables travelers from Northern California to reach eastern destinations like Las Vegas while avoiding traffic congestion in the Los Angeles area. As one of only two freeways to cross the Sierra Nevada, State Route 58 enables truck drivers driving east from the Bay Area to avoid the Donner Pass, which has a notoriously steep approach from the east.

The proposed Centennial Corridor would extend State Route 58 roughly 1.7 miles from its intersection with State Route 99 across the Kern River to the Westside Parkway and ultimately Interstate 5 as part of the Thomas Roads Improvement Plan, which was implemented to address rapid population growth and to "relieve the stress of outdated infrastructure," according to the complaint.

According to the state webpage about the project, extending State Route 58 has been studied for two decades, but opposition to a connection to the Westside Parkway killed the project until recently.

In 2005, the National Corridor Infrastructure Act established a program to earmark federal funds for corridor projects that would, among other things, promote regional economic growth, facilitate interregional trade and reduce congestion on existing highways. The Centennial Corridor received $300 million under this program.

Though the environmental impact report identified two alternate routes and a "no build" alternative that would have fewer environmental impacts, Caltrans rejected the other routes as more expensive and less feasible than Alternative B, Caltrans' preferred option, and the no-project alternative for being unable to meet the area's transportation needs, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs submitted comments opposing the project when the draft environmental report was circulated for public review from May to July 2014. Rather than address those comments in a revised report, the plaintiffs say, Caltrans prepared responses that were published in the final report in early December 2015 - a day after Caltrans officially approved the project.

The plaintiffs claim the final report violates CEQA's mandate to completely analyze all environmental impacts, and fell especially short in its treatment of air quality.

Bakersfield is surrounded on all sides by mountains, creating a bowl that traps air pollutants such as soot and ozone. Coupled with the area's typically warm weather, the city is usually suffocating under a thick blanket of smog.

Because of the grimy air, respiratory diseases such as asthma affect thousands of people in the area. A 2010 study from the Special Panel of the Health Effects Institute indicated that exposure to traffic air pollutants can exacerbate asthma symptoms in children, especially those who live 984 to 1,640 feet from a freeway or major thoroughfare. In large North American cities, this accounts for 30 to 45 percent of the population, according to the study.

The study also found evidence that exposure to traffic-generated air pollution can impair lung function and increase rates of cardiovascular disease and death due to decreased blood flow to the heart, heart attack, and heart failure.

Most of Kern County is at nonattainment or serious nonattainment for several pollutants, including fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and lead particulates, according to a report from the East Kern Air Pollution Control District.

But the final environmental impact report glossed over these issues, and offered little to no information on how Caltrans plans to mitigate air quality deterioration and the associated health impacts or address the fact that it will delay the area's attainment of EPA air quality standards, the plaintiffs say.

Nor does it include mitigation measures for the approximately 961 people who will be displaced by the project; analyze how increased noise will affect schools and daycare centers near the proposed route; or take into account that the highway will prevent people from access to parks, churches, and shops on foot or by bicycle, according to the complaint, and reporting by The Bakersfield Californian.

The plaintiffs also claim the final report does not accurately describe potential impacts of the no-build alternative, which Caltrans claimed would impair air quality more than the project itself; indicate how it will treat abandoned oil wells in the project area; or say how it will protect endangered and threatened species and their critical habitat.

None of the defendants immediately returned emailed requests for comment sent Monday afternoon.

The plaintiffs want the court to vacate and set aside approval of the project and certification of the environmental impact report and to suspend all activity on the project until Caltrans issues a new impact report that complies with CEQA.

Jamie Hall is with the Channel Law Group of Beverly Hills.

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