Hundreds of people crowded the rotunda at the County of Kern Administrative Center Thursday night to ask questions about the Centennial Corridor project, and an army of consultants, planners and other experts was ready for them.
The Centennial Corridor is the biggest and most expensive of the Thomas Roads Improvement Program projects to expand Bakersfield's roads. It would link Highway 58 to the Westside Parkway and eventually Interstate 5.
The California Department of Transportation has hosted public meetings in the past on the project, but this was the first since Caltrans administrators said three weeks ago that the agency's preference is to build Alternative B, lying roughly halfway between Alternative A farther west and Alternative C to the east and cutting through the Westpark neighborhood northwest of Stockdale Highway and Highway 99. Caltrans administrators said they chose Alternative B as their preference in line with federal law requiring them to avoid public parks and historic properties if possible.
Bryan Apper, a senior environmental planner for the agency, clarified that Caltrans staff will continue to study all three routes for the final environmental document outlining the project. The agency hasn't made a final decision on which route to build, he noted, but Caltrans is declaring its preference for Alternative B now based on what they know so far, that the Alternative B route avoids parks and historic properties and the other two don't.
"Tonight we're here because when we got to this point, we had an ability to bring this information to the public now," Apper said. "People need time to do their own research and see what this means." Once the draft environmental document is released, expected sometime next April, the public has a limited time to make comments on it.
Large-scale maps showing the 207 homes that would be completely torn down with Alternative B papered tables in the rotunda. Other displays on easels showed why Alternative B is the preferred route. One map showed how Alternative C would cut a slice off Saunders Park, an impact that has to be avoided if possible under federal law. Another display showed "potential historic properties" that also have to be avoided under the law. Other boards showed photos of neighborhood streets and how they would appear if Alternative B is built, with soundwalls crossing streets where houses now stand or the street itself being raised over the freeway, minus the current houses.
Caltrans also staffed the space in the Garden Spot Cafe at the front of the county building with 22 TRIP staff members to answer questions about the process for buying up homes along the freeway. Residents waited in line for individual meetings.
"Right-of-way is such a big issue on this project," said Jeannie Stevens, assistant program manager for TRIP. "We have about 20 right-of-way specialists to make sure we have enough people to answer people's questions."
The Westpark Homeowners Association, a group of Westpark residents opposed to the project, planned to attend the meeting wearing red shirts in protest. Many of them were sprinkled throughout the rotunda, and several attendees wore "No Build Stop Caltrans Save Westpark" stickers.
The Westpark residents' group has vowed to fight the project through legal means. Resident Tony Padilla, whose home on South Garnsey Avenue would be demolished with Alternative B, said he supports a legal fight, but that he'd also like to see Caltrans try to come up with another option.
"C is the most popular route" because it would take out the fewest number of homes, Padilla said. "But because it takes a couple of feet off the (Saunders) park ... it can't be done."
"The collateral damage I don't think they're understanding."
Westpark resident Janet Riden is part of a group of neighborhood representatives set up by Caltrans to act as a liaison between the agency and the neighborhood. Her house also would come down with Alternative B.
"Some of them really want to fight," she said of neighbors. "I'm just trying to (have) a positive attitude. ... I feel like they're not going to cheat us. They're going to be fair," she said about the prospect of Caltrans and the city acquiring her home.