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After years of being in the dark, residents and business owners in the Westpark area of Bakersfield finally have some idea as to whether their homes and buildings could be torn down to make room for the Centennial Corridor highway project.

Caltrans said Thursday it is recommending the Alternative B route for what will link Highway 58 to the Westside Parkway and eventually Interstate 5.

The Centennial Corridor is the biggest and most expensive of the Thomas Roads Improvement Program projects Bakersfield has been undertaking to upgrade and expand its roads.  

Caltrans said it’s recommending Alternative B “because the other build alternatives under consideration would directly affect local parks or historic properties.”

Alternative B would ease traffic congestion along Highway 58 from Cottonwood Road to Interstate 5, Caltrans said in a press release. It would extend Highway 58 west from Highway 99 for about half a mile along the south side of Stockdale Highway. It would then turn northwest through the largely residential area known as Westpark, thread through the commercial areas along California Avenue and connect to Truxtun Avenue and the Westside Parkway between AAA offices and the retail center that contains Paragon Salon and Moo Creamery, just east of Mohawk Street.

Caltrans estimated that Alternative B would cost $570 million, the cheapest of options A through C. (There used to be an Alternative D, but it’s long been off the table due to high costs and potential conflict with the California High-Speed Rail project).

Alternative B lies roughly halfway between Alternatives A and C. Alternative A, the westernmost route, would run west for about a mile on the south side of Stockdale Highway, then turn northwest and cross Truxtun Avenue and the Kern River. Alternative C, farther east, would mainly run alongside Highway 99. 

Alternative B would take out 310 residences and 121 commercial properties. Alternative A would take out an estimated 356 residences and 127 commercial properties. Alternative C would take out the fewest residences (133) and the most commercial properties (198).

What Caltrans’ recommendation means is that Alternatives A and C are off the table, said Steven Milton, Caltrans project manager for the Centennial Corridor project. The only choices left are Alternative B and not building the project at all, he said.

Construction likely wouldn’t start until at least the summer of 2015, Milton said.

There’s still a long process to go through before a final decision is made. On Dec. 6, Caltrans will hold a public information meeting to talk to residents about its recommendation and answer concerns. Then in April 2013, Caltrans plans to release a draft environmental document outlining the project. A 60-day comment period will follow, and a final environmental document, effectively Caltrans’ final decision on the project, is expected in early 2014, Milton said.

Unlike with the TRIP project to widen 24th Street, the final decision on this project will be made only by Caltrans instead of by the agency and Bakersfield City Council.

The option to not build the project is unlikely, Milton said. It would happen, for instance, if Bakersfield were to lose the funding.

Caltrans said it chose Alternative B in line with federal law that requires the agency to avoid public parks and historic properties when possible.

Alternative A would damage the Rancho Vista Historic District south of Stockdale Highway west of Highway 99. Caltrans said Rancho Vista was recently found to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Alternative C, on the other hand, would mean taking out basketball courts, the roller hockey arena and the splash park area in Saunders Park. Trying to avoid those impacts for either alternative would inflate the price tag considerably, Caltrans said, to as high as $2 billion.

“I am shocked and terribly disappointed,” said Mellie Weymouth when told of Caltrans’ choice Thursday afternoon. Weymouth, 85, and her husband, Thornton, 89, originally planned to retire in Fresno but were persuaded to look in Bakersfield when a granddaughter said she wanted to live with them here while going to college. Their home lies in the path of Alternative B.

She said she was surprised both by the choice and by how suddenly it had been made after years of waiting.

“We have loved this neighborhood. We have really been extremely satisfied here,” she said. “This is very disappointing for me.”

Milton said construction, if the project is built, will be done in two phases, though what will be built first still has to be ironed out.

Part of the reason is to protect the federal earmark money that’s been alloted to the project in case there’s a risk the funds could be moved away from Bakersfield by Congress members.

“We were given this TRIP money in 2006 and we want to show in good faith that this is a real project and spend down the money so there’s no chance of change in (Congressional) leadership that the money could go away,” Milton said. “We could speculate at least a thousand different ways we could lose the money, and it wouldn’t be good for this area.”

A first phase would have “minimal” acquisitions compared to the second phase and likely would involve work on Highway 58  and bridges over the Kern River, Milton said.