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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Former congressman Bill Thomas enjoying chatting with Caltrans project manager Steven Milton at the ground breaking for the State Route 58 Gap Closure.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Media handlers "dug up" enough gold shovels so all dignitaries were able to participate in the State Route 58 Gap Closure photo op. Former congressman Bill Thomas is fifth from right.

In an effort to reduce traffic and improve safety on a stretch of 1970s-era highway used by nearly 80,000 vehicles a day, city officials broke ground Wednesday on the $18.6 million widening of Highway 58 west of Cottonwood Road.

Completed in 1976, the highway shouldn't narrow from six lanes to four west of Cottonwood -- but it does, speakers said.

"We have the unusual characteristic, in Bakersfield, of a freeway that gets narrower as it comes into town, and drops a lane as it picks up traffic," said City Manager Alan Tandy, one of several current and former officials who said improvements are vital.

Once that three-mile expanse of Highway 58 is widened to six lanes, in about 15 months, former U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, said the controversial Centennial Corridor link to the Westside Parkway, and later Interstate 5, will be essential.

"I was just thinking as I was coming onto the 58, this is the only road out of Bakersfield that opens up the lower 48 (continental states) to us, and it dead-ends. In one of the top 10 cities in population in California," Thomas said in an interview. "We're the city of dead-end freeways, and we're about to make sure that is a title we don't hold anymore, with Centennial Corridor."

Caltrans' long-awaited draft environmental impact report on Centennial Corridor -- expected this year but delayed -- will be released in early 2014, according to Steven Milton, a Caltrans project manager.

Centennial Corridor is opposed by business owners and residents in the Westpark area, whose properties would be demolished to build the freeway segment.

Widening Highway 58 starting in early November is a Thomas Roads Improvement Program project, funded by $630 million in federal highway money Thomas got for the agency, and it's eagerly awaited.

It means more room for the 78,000 annual daily average vehicles that used Highway 58 between Highway 99 and H Street, and the 77,000 annual daily average vehicles that used it from Union Avenue to Cottonwood Road, according to Caltrans' 2012 project report on the widening.

A wider highway also could improve upon the latest Caltrans accident statistics showing that more than half the reported accidents west of Cottonwood Road are rear-end collisions, "which (is) indicative of the congestion on the facility," according to the project report.

Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera said the widening should provide local jobs, and prompt developers to take a second look at Brundage Lane, the closest east-west thoroughfare north of the freeway.

"I can't tell you how many times I've gotten on here and had to sit in traffic for 30 minutes," Rivera said. "That's continually a deterrent to folks wanting to build along here."