I understand Caltrans has a job to do and it has a process it must follow. But why on earth are we just now hearing about these ironclad, all-powerful Dept. of Transportation Act of 1966 Section 4(f) regulations?

It's because of the 4(f) regulations that Caltrans made its recent recommendation to destroy the Westpark neighborhood rather than extend Highway 58 to the east or west of it.

To the west, Alternative A, the highway would run into an architecturally historic area known as Rancho Vista and take out a few acres of the sand volleyball courts near Mohawk Street. To the east, Alternative C along Highway 99, it would take out a portion of Saunders Park, just north of Palm Street

and east of Real Road.

Apparently, that can't happen. Ever. No way. No how.

So, we're left with Alternative B, which plows straight up the middle through hundreds of long-established homes.

And there is nothing, short of perhaps a meteorite obliterating those parks, that anyone can do.

The city council can't offer to build a park elsewhere, donate the land to the state, revoke the park's zoning -- nothing.

The 4(f) regulations specifically prohibit such after-the-fact tinkering, Caltrans told me. Parks must be protected.

You can't even build a freeway over a park if it would alter the nature of the park. Such as, sand volleyball courts offer people a "beach like" atmosphere, which would be substantially altered under an eight-lane freeway. (I don't know, the shade might actually be nice.)

OK, I get it. But those parks have been sitting there in plain view all these years.

I'm sure Westpark residents would have liked to have known years ago that their neighborhood was 99.9 percentdoomed.

"I was shocked to read that Alternative C was basically taken off the table because of Saunders Park," said Councilwoman Sue Benham, who represents the Westpark area.

Her final days in office are counting down as she opted not to run for another term. But she hoped something could be done.

"It's not just the people who's homes will be taken out, this will leave the neighborhood divided," she said.

Terry Maxwell, who won a close race for Benham's seat, said he plans to look into options to avoid destroying Westpark.

"How many people live in Saunders Park?" he asked. "We can put a park somewhere else."

I would like to agree with Maxwell that some kind compromise can be found. But after talking with Caltrans, I'm not so hopeful.

It seems the engineers and project managers have already looked at every conceivable way to skin this cat.

But they were boxed in by those Section 4(f) regulations, not to mention other unpalatable impacts to residents elsewhere.

On Alternative A, as I said earlier, going over the volleyball courts isn't allowed under 4(f). Tunnelling beneath it, which Caltrans also looked at, would add $700 million to the total cost, bringing it up to about $1.4 billion.

The target cost for the entire extension is about $700 million, according to Project Manager Steven Milton. So, the tunnel was out.

Alternative A also has the added issue of the Rancho Vista historic district.

This is an area west of Highway 99 and south of Stockdale Highway. It's bounded generally by Stine Road on the east, Frazier Avenue to the north, McDonald Way to the west and Quarter Avenue to the south.

It's significant because it's an entire tract of post World War II prefabricated homes, I was told. And those are eligible for historic registration. If something's eligible -- not even registered, just eligible -- 4(f) comes into play.

A tunnel there would also add about $700 million.

Not to mention. Alternative A would take out the most homes, 356, and businesses, 127.

Alternative C, which would run along Highway 99, takes out the least homes, 133, and businesses 198. But it has Saunders Park to deal with.

Though a 58 extension would only affect less than four of Saunders 11 acres, Section 4(f) doesn't allow a substantial alteration.

Engineers looked at moving the freeway to the west of Saunders park but that would cost an extra $787 million and end up destroying 304 houses and 205 businesses.

Moving the extension to the east of 99 would jack the price up by $832 million and take out 217 homes and 235 businesses.

Going over was no good either. Support columns would have to be inside the park and that runs afoul of 4(f). Besides, getting over the covered roller hockey rink would mean raising the freeway so high it would be impossible.

Like I said, Caltrans did a lot of looking before settling on its preferred option.

Still, I was told several times, a preferred option is not set in concrete.

People are still urged to scour Caltrans' documents and give their thoughts. The agency may not have looked under every stone.

Especially if someone could make a credible case that Alternative B would destroy an historic home or area.

That would put all routes on an even field and Caltrans would then have to balance all the impacts.

Either way, it's going to be a long painful process.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com