On Wednesday, Bakersfield City Council members joined retired Congressman Bill Thomas, other elected officials and the public to celebrate the city’s latest local transportation improvement project: widening State Route 178 to four lanes.
While Highway 178 had to be widened and its completion marks a milestone in Bakersfield history that’s more than 20 years in the making, it begs the larger question: What happens when the $680 million earmark that Thomas brought to the Kern region is spent?
The massive, $630 million Centennial Corridor project that will connect State Route 58 to the Westside Parkway is both the crown jewel in the Thomas Roads Improvement Program (TRIP) as well as its last hurrah. In short: That’s all, folks.
Meanwhile, Bakersfield and the Kern region in general have gradually become a logistics hub over the last two decades, playing an ever-increasing role in our economic well-being. Target, Dollar General, Ross Dress-For-Less, Sears, Famous Footwear, Caterpillar, Ikea and literally a dozen other major retailers have planted distribution centers in Kern because they realize what so many of our residents have known for so long — you can get anywhere from here in about four hours. Kern County is the population center of California.
Having a reliable transportation system that is not slowed by traffic benefits Kern’s logistics hub and the entire southwest U.S. More than 2,000 jobs have been added in the past decade at these distribution facilities, which have the lowest cost for shipping products statewide, and the lowest carbon footprint as well.
TRIP — including the Fairfax Road and Morning Drive interchanges, Westside Parkway, 24th Street and Seventh Standard Road widening, the State Route 58 improvements — has had a great run of sorely needed infrastructure projects over the last 10 years. But that run is just about over and we have nothing — not a thing — to take its place.
Didn’t the Legislature just pass a big gas tax increase? Yes, but only to make up the ground lost to inflation for maintenance over the last two decades. Sixty percent of SB 1 funding goes to road repairs, with half of that going to state highways and the other half distributed based on local road miles and population to each local jurisdiction. The remaining 40 percent goes mostly to transit, bike and pedestrian facilities.
In fact, SB 1 doesn’t even completely address our maintenance problem, only meeting about 40 percent of what we estimate we’ll need to keep our existing roads in good repair. SB 1 is not going to help us expand our transportation network in the least. Nor has there been anything yet to suggest that the federal government is willing to front the money to ensure our highways and freeways stay relatively congestion-free. That responsibility will fall squarely on us.
While we wait, we continue to grow. Kern’s population has doubled in the last 34 years (1983 to 2017) and is expected to double again in the next 40 to 70 years, depending on which forecast you look at. Accordingly, travel on Kern’s roadways has also more than doubled in that time frame, with a 141 percent increase, from 9.3 million to 22.5 million vehicle miles traveled daily, according to Caltrans.
Also, new technologies may increase travel and congestion on our highways. More affordable travel options provided by shared mobility technology companies such as Uber and Lyft may, in the near term, increase trips from the non-driving public: Think students and seniors. Autonomous vehicles may someday eliminate the cost of a driver, further reducing travel expenses and potentially driving up congestion.
All of this points to a need for Kern residents themselves to safeguard our transportation network. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that for every $1 billion spent on transportation, nearly 40,000 job years are created. This does not include all the spin-off “multiplier” jobs generated throughout the economy in retail, education and services that are needed to support transportation-worker households.
Supporting transportation infrastructure makes sense for our children, our economy and our future. Without it, we’ll have no place to go.