Bakersfield's new freeway system might have once seemed like a pie in the sky dream, given its far-distant date of anticipated completion and a price tag so large it seemed almost incomprehensible. But look at it now: Local officials have just turned over symbolic dirt on another eight-mile stretch of road, and with other key components due to be finished this summer, it's clear Caltrans, the city of Bakersfield and the other vital players will be able to keep a promise that a previous generation of transportation officials failed to deliver on 40 years ago.
Work began last week on the final phase of the Westside Parkway, a $188 million project that will extend from westernmost Truxtun Avenue to Heath Road and, eventually, will significantly ease traffic for commuters in a city that has dramatically outgrown its outdated road infrastructure.
Three other phases of the project currently under construction are slated to be completed this summer, and the entire project -- built largely with local traffic impact fees collected slowly since 1991 and state transportation dollars known as STIP funding -- should be finished by November 2014.
Bakersfield hasn't just grown in the past four decades, it has exploded. Most of that growth has been in southwest and northwest Bakersfield, which, not coincidentally, contend with the worst traffic congestion.
Bakersfield commuters, especially those who make the trek from southwest and northwest Bakersfield to the downtown area and back again, don't need population and traffic flow statistics to know what they're up against. They know from firsthand experience that driving through the city during the morning and end-of-workday commutes is not much fun. Traffic issues can make this medium-sized city seem a bit like a certain major metropolitan neighbor to the south -- which defeats one of the purposes of living in a medium-sized city.
Bakersfield-proper has gone from 70,000 residents in 1970 to 347,000 in 2010, according to U.S. Census data, and the city's growth likely will not be subsiding. In each of the last two 10-year census periods, Bakersfield's population has grown by more than 40 percent. Population forecasters say Bakersfield, already the ninth largest city in California, will pass Fresno as the largest city in the Central Valley in a few years' time.
As a result of this rapid growth, the stress on existing road infrastructure has been extreme. The city has tried to keep up. Westernmost Truxtun Avenue, known colloquially as Truxtun Extension, was built three decades ago. It helped ease southwest-to-downtown congestion, but the growth of the city has now simply overwhelmed it.
Bakersfield is finally getting what it needs. The Westside Parkway should not only make travel easier for drivers, it should help ease congestion on key surface streets, like California Avenue, Stockdale Avenue and Rosedale Highway west of Highway 99. Those are heavily commercialized roads not built for the kind of cross-city traffic that metro freeways handle best.
Bakersfield has long had a difficult relationship with its freeways. The portion of Highway 58 that extends east of the city comes to an abrupt end at a shopping center whose tenants have every right to be nervous. Consider, too, the mess that is the Highway 178/westside 58/99/24th Street/Rosedale Highway/Buck Owens Boulevard interchange. We don't even know what to call that.
Bakersfield has a lot of work ahead in crafting a freeway system that will keep pace with the city's growth, and it won't just be engineering work. The proposed 24th Street realignment and Centennial Corridor projects will be divisive and emotional battles, much as the Westside Parkway's proposed path through the Westpark neighborhood has been, and probably will continue to be.
But on the west side of Bakersfield, where relief from traffic congestion is most needed, transportation officials are getting it right. As well they should: It's been 40 years in the making.