With prophetic and playful words, patriotic songs, the snip of a red ribbon, and a promenade of classic cars, Bakersfield on Friday inaugurated a five-mile, $178 million stretch of the Westside Parkway, the city’s first new freeway in 37 years.
The entire freeway was open by 12:20 p.m. Friday, following speeches by current and former public officials, presentation of colors by the West High School Navy Junior ROTC Cadets, and a performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by students in Liberty High School's band camp.
“There are very few new freeways in the country anywhere, so this is a landmark. But look — we’ve got a parking lot over here,” City Manager Alan Tandy joked to the more than 200 current and former elected officials and residents assembled.
Audience members were the first to actually drive, at reduced speeds — and park — on the new freeway in order to attend the event, held across the Parkway’s three westbound lanes, at its Coffee Road overpass. Once the freeway opened, motorists traveling 65 miles per hour were able to travel its entire length in less than six minutes.
“Bakersfield is terribly excited to have the opening of this new artery in our community,” Mayor Harvey Hall said. “We may, some day, maybe in my lifetime, we may connect to Interstate 5.”
The Parkway begins at Truxtun Avenue in the east, and currently ends at Allen Road in the west, with interchanges at Truxtun Avenue, Mohawk Street, Coffee Road, Calloway Drive, and Allen Road. Planning for it began in the 1980s, with construction starting in 2009.
It is the city’s first new freeway since the completion of Highway 58 in 1976. Now landscaped with wood chips from the city’s solid waste department, the Parkway will receive an estimated $20 million in more permanent — and lush — groundcover once officials find the money.
Work began in March on its final, $30.1 million segment, extending the Parkway west to the intersection of Heath Road and Stockdale Highway. That portion is expected to open in 2014.
An Environmental Impact Report on the controversial Centennial Corridor freeway segment that will link the Parkway to Highway 58 — southeast of the Parkway’s eastern terminus — is expected in late 2013 or early 2014. Ultimately, the entire freeway will connect to Interstate 5.
“It’s movement east to west, in one of the 10 largest cities, in a state that has spent enormous amounts of money to move people north to south,” said former
U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, who procured an unprecedented $720 million in federal money for the city’s Thomas Roads Improvement Program, which is named for him.
TRIP’s endowment, which has since grown to $1.3 billion, is being spent on a series of freeway projects, including the Parkway, Centennial Corridor, and improvements to Highway 178 at Fairfax Road and at Morning Drive.
“Some people have said this is a freeway from nowhere, and a freeway to nowhere, and frankly, you’re wrong,” Thomas said. Others agreed that the Parkway quickly will prove its worth.
“I think it’s definitely going to help traffic out in certain parts of town — Rosedale Highway, Truxtun Avenue, Stockdale Highway,” said Mike Maggard, 3rd District Kern County supervisor and a former Bakersfield city councilman. “We still haven’t totally connected, but we’re closer.”
“That’s the plan. We’re on our way,” said Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan. “Five miles of progress, that’s a lot.”