The long-awaited widening of 24th Street, the city's busiest thoroughfare, was approved 6-1 by the Bakersfield City Council Wednesday over the opposition of a small but vocal number of residents.
The council certified the project's Environmental Impact Report over objections from speakers who variously accused the city of damaging Bakersfield's most historic residential area and not solving traffic problems.
The city's next steps in the $62-million project are completing its design -- at a cost of more than $3 million -- and spending an estimated $13 million to purchase the land for the project.
The widening, part of the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, would expand 23rd and 24th streets from three lanes in each direction to four between D and M streets, and from two to three lanes in each direction between D and Olive streets.
It also would improve the intersection of 24th Street with Oak Street and Rosedale Highway.
But doing so would eliminate 293 street parking spaces, require taking residential land on the north side of 24th Street, demolishing 23 single-family homes and buying parts of 15 nonresidential locations.
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, an opponent of the project, spent 55 minutes critiquing the EIR -- calling it "flawed" and "suspect" -- before casting the lone vote against it.
"It's obvious this EIR is the result of starting with your conclusion and working backward. This EIR does not address some of the simple things we can do to make things better on 23rd and 24th," Maxwell said.
He asked the council to consider changing its priorities on major highway projects. In addition to advocating for the Hosking Road-Highway 99 interchange, Maxwell said building the Hageman Road Flyover across Highway 99 would draw 15,000 cars per day off 24th Street.
His lengthy speech earned him the ire of Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan.
"Terry, I feel that we were really the victims of a filibuster for over an hour. Do you really feel you had the support to perhaps not do the project from three other council members?" asked Sullivan, who said she felt the council had been disrespected.
Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera hadn't planned to speak on the EIR but said "someone set me off."
"I want to commend you for sticking to your guns," Rivera said to Maxwell. "If we take a little bit more time when we only meet once this month anyway, I think that's an easy price to pay."
Sullivan's remarks angered resident Julie Young so much she spoke to the councilwoman about it after the meeting.
"I'm offended by her," Young said. "(Maxwell) spoke for the people. He read the EIR. I think she needs to apologize to the audience."
Maxwell also angered Mayor Harvey Hall for introducing Kern County Health Officer Claudia Jonah to talk about valley fever during public comment against certifying the EIR.
"It wasn't fair to me to take away from those people who wished to speak in opposition, to take up their time for an outside speaker," said Hall, who had to give opponents 10 more minutes.
Jonah said during her remarks it was necessary to be aware of the disease. But in an interview she declined to predict whether valley fever cases could rise during 24th Street reconstruction.
Five members of the public spoke in opposition, starting with A Street resident Vanessa Vangel, a founder of Citizens Against the 24th Street Widening Project.
"I am not going to plead for you to vote no on the approval of this project. What I am asking you is to make the decision that is right, fair and just," said Vangel, who added after the meeting she wasn't surprised by the council's decision.
Although three residents spoke in favor of certifying the EIR, two of the three urged the council not to build a pedestrian crosswalk for students at A Street.
"I think it would behoove each one of you to say, 'This crosswalk should not happen,'"said resident Tony O'Brien, a oil truck driver, who avoids 24th Street because he believes Golden State Avenue is safer.
In making a motion to approve the EIR, Vice Mayor Ken Weir said he did so in hopes of "eliminating the crosswalk."