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Casey Christie / The Californian

Many involved in the city of Bakersfield and the Thomas Roads Improvement Program toss some dirt during Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony for Phase 6C of the Westside Parkway project.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Former Congressman Bill Thomas, right, had the audience laughing for a few moments, including Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, during Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony for Phase 6C of the Westside Parkway project.

Drivers on Stockdale Highway Thursday afternoon might not have noticed that a historic moment for Bakersfield was happening. With gold-colored shovels, city officials and administrators and former Rep. Bill Thomas broke ground on the final, westernmost phase of the Westside Parkway.

The final phase, expected to take 18 months to build, will extend the east-west roadway from Allen Road to Heath Road. The entire eight-mile parkway will then extend from Truxtun Avenue west to Heath Road and ease travel on the west side of Bakersfield.

Thomas and the others stood ready with their shovels well in front of the edge of a gaping chasm in the earth, where 400,000 cubic-yards of dirt had already been removed and used to build the interchange with Allen Road for another segment of the Westside Parkway.

"Believe it or not, at the end of fall next year, we will have the Westside Parkway completed," said Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall. "People ... want to know, 'When is that Westside Parkway going to be done?'" Hopefully, the entire eight-mile road will be finished by November 2014, Hall said.

The final two-mile segment will cost $30 million to build, according to Thomas Roads Improvement Program staff. The cost for the entire project is $188 million and largely is funded with state money. Construction started in 2009.

"I just really want to emphasize that the Westside Parkway is primarily a city of Bakersfield effort, and they've done a terrific job," Thomas said.

"When you continue to look at the data about Bakersfield, the size of the city ... the growth that we anticipate beyond what we already have ... It's critical that we do this kind of infrastructure now. We had a few difficulties where we didn't do the infrastructure in the '60s or the '70s or the '80s or the '90s or in the first decade of the 21st century, but we are going to do it now."

The need for a high-capacity road in west Bakersfield arose in the 1970s, and the idea that eventually became the plans for the Westside Parkway was hatched in the early 1990s, according to TRIP documents.

The Westside Parkway isn't funded with the federal TRIP earmark money that Thomas secured for projects to expand Bakersfield's roads, including the Centennial Corridor. But it is overseen by the TRIP office, which was created to manage the TRIP-funded projects.

"Many of you have worked on or worked for, been consultants on this project, been a contractor on this project -- the TRIP program itself," said Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy. "A great, great many people are employed because of the gift that Mr. Thomas brought back to the community." Three-quarters of the workers on the project are local, he said.

"So the economy is doing much better than it would have done had Mr. Thomas not been our beneficiary," Tandy said.

"It's going to be big," Bakersfield Public Works Director Raul Rojas said. "It'll be an east-west connection," and once it connects to the yet-to-be-built Centennial Corridor, it will effectively be an extension of Interstate 40, which stretches across the country, he said.

"It gets a lot of the traffic off the city streets," such as Truxtun Avenue and Stockdale Highway, Rojas added. "But it also will help improve some of our city streets with circulation."

"This will change the way people get around in west Bakersfield and get into town," said Ted Wright, Bakersfield's program manager for TRIP.

Although the stretch from Allen Road to Heath Road is the final segment to be built, work is continuing on three other segments: the portion from Mohawk Street to Allen Road, the interchange with Allen Road and the interchange with Truxtun Avenue. Those three phases are expected to wrap up this summer, said Melissa Rossiter of the TRIP office.