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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

A view of highway 178 west of Morning Drive before the freeway begins.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

A view of Morning Drive looking north from highway 178 toward Auburn Street.

In two years, the intersection of Morning Drive and Highway 178 will be smoother, wider and about six feet lower, city officials told more than 120 residents of northeast Bakersfield Tuesday night, during an informational meeting near the project's groundbreaking site Wednesday.

Starting next month, crews will begin building new on- and off-ramps for eastbound Highway 178 at Morning Drive. They'll also remove approximately 700,000 cubic yards of dirt, lowering the entire intersection -- including the Morning Drive hill just north of the 178 -- by about six feet.

Possibly as soon as next spring, highway traffic then will be diverted onto these ramps, while the actual freeway portion of the 178 is improved and extended two miles eastward to Canteria Drive.

Morning Drive will be closed south of Auburn Street, approximately from summer 2014 to summer or fall 2015. It will be widened from two lanes to six lanes from Highway 178 north to Auburn Street, and to four lanes from Auburn Street north to Panorama Drive.

Southbound motorists on Morning Drive will be rerouted west on Auburn Street to Fairfax Road.

Residents of the Florence Gardens Senior Living Community, on the north side of Highway 178 between Fairfax Road and Morning Drive, will get a new 8-feet-high, 750-feet-long soundwall, with its top portion built from Plexiglass, so as not to impede views.

When the project is finished in the fall of 2015, Morning Drive will be an overpass, and it will continue south of the freeway, on a portion of the street built by Fresno-based developer G.L. Bruno Associates to aid in its construction of a $150 million medical complex southwest of the intersection.

The update on the $145 million project provided details about a project that residents from nearby developments including City in the Hills, Four Seasons and Solera, said was long awaited.

"They can't do it fast enough for me. I am so glad -- you're sitting there on the freeway," said resident Cathy Barnett, describing the inadequacy of Highway 178's left-turn lane onto northbound Morning Drive. Others wondered when retail developments will begin arriving.

"Has there been any integration with business development, shopping centers, anything like that?" resident Glenn Shellcross asked.

"The old saying -- if you build it, they will come, we anticipate," said Kristina Budak, a civil engineer with the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, which administers this and other major road projects for the city.

"Why did it take so long, since 2011, with the environmental impact report? We live out there, and it's miserable," resident Clyde Griffin said.

"Design on an interchange this size will take about 18 months, and then you have to buy right-of-way. We have to design the project, so that we know what we're going to impact," Budak said.

Others wondered how the planned opening next year of Douglas K. Fletcher Elementary and Paul L. Cato Middle schools, at Highland Knolls Drive and Vineland Road, will impact traffic on Highway 178 and nearby Highway 184.

"You're going to see accidents on Highway 184 because of this development," said resident Heidi Carter-Escudero, who said she was amazed officials hadn't considered renaming a widened Morning Drive as Highway 184. Local officials were encouraging, but said the process takes time.

"I'm happy to help, but I can't do it by myself," said Vice Mayor Ken Weir, who represents Ward 3, which includes the project.

"There's a route adoption process. It takes legislation. You start locally through the Kern Council of Government and you request it," said Paul Pineda, project manager for Caltrans, who attended the meeting.

Some compared the project favorably to TRIP's earlier improvements to Fairfax Road.

"Fairfax is awesome. Nobody thought they were going to use it, but look at it," said resident Pat Combs. "It's a year's inconvenience. A little inconvenience for a new freeway."