Concerns are mounting that transportation corridors just north of Bakersfield will have to be expanded or otherwise adjusted to address an increase in truck traffic from continued development of distribution centers along 7th Standard Road and its eastern extension, Merle Haggard Drive.
City, county and regional planners, convinced a series of solutions may be required to avoid congestion along local roads and state highways, say they have begun looking for government money that could be used to create new traffic models that would help them to propose changes in the way heavy trucks and other vehicles move through the area.
The work carries economic ramifications because logistics, a growing part of Kern County's industrial profile, depends on the easy flow of trucks to and from facilities such as the 2.6 million-square-foot distribution center Amazon is building just north of Merle Haggard Drive across from Meadows Field Airport.
While Amazon's building is the most recent cause for consideration, a logistics center being built out in the city of Shafter adds to planners' sense that something will have to be done before long to make sure trucks don't eventually back up along Highway 99.
"We are well aware of the issue and are working actively to resolve those problems before we have a breakdown of the system," said Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kern Council of Governments, which coordinates planning on transportation and other matters requiring interagency cooperation.
"We are working actively to make sure the highway system, specifically up there (near Meadows Field), works well," he added, "because the ability to move goods in Kern County is absolutely essential to our economy."
Kern COG has hosted recent meetings among officials from the cities of Bakersfield and Shafter, Kern County and the California Department of Transportation. One goal of the group has been to apply for grants that would fund new transportation planning. People involved say no money has yet become available to begin detailed traffic modeling.
The area where attention has been focused lately is centered around the intersection of 7th Standard Road and Highway 99. Planners say planning efforts will have to extend as far west as the city of Shafter, as far north as Lerdo Highway and south to Olive Drive.
Amazon, whose distribution center is quickly taking shape and may open with more than 1,000 employees by the end of this year, is expected to have a substantial impact on the area's traffic system. But it was unclear how much of an effect the project might have on the local flow of traffic.
The company would not provide a copy of the traffic mitigation measures it is required to perform under its county development permit. It declined to comment on the subject and still has not publicly acknowledged its project near Bakersfield.
Meanwhile, several senior Kern County officials did not respond to repeated requests made over a period of more than one week to provide a copy of Amazon's traffic mitigation requirements, which are considered public record.
Caltrans, for its part, has reviewed written materials associated with Amazon's traffic requirements and found them to be deficient in at least two respects.
A letter sent April 29 by agency planner Lorena Mendibles to the senior engineering manager in Kern County Public Works, Warren Maxwell, states the state received a traffic impact study, dated May 2018, looking at the Amazon project. It said the analysis arrived after the county had already approved the project and too late for Caltrans to provide timely comments.
Mendibles' letter said Caltrans data show trucks account for 20 percent of traffic on Highway 99 and 22 percent on Highway 65, which intersects with Merle Haggard Drive. She wrote that the 5 percent truck traffic assumed in the Amazon study "appears too low."
She called for several traffic mitigation measures outlined in the study to be completed prior to opening of the Amazon facility. The measures she referred to, all of which would be done at the intersection of Merle Haggard and Highway 65, are the addition and construction of a westbound, northbound and southbound lanes, as well as modification of a traffic signal.
"The scope and limits of these projects should have been clearly identified in the (traffic impact study)," she wrote, adding some of the work will require a state encroachment permit and that the work must be performed to Caltrans standards at no cost to the state.
A Caltrans spokesman emphasized the agency has no direct involvement with the project, though its employees have reviewed it and participate in regional planning meetings.
Kern Public Works Director Craig Pope said the traffic study at issue in Mendibles' letter looked at impacts from truck trips and employees coming to the Amazon facility. He said he had no details but that it appears the project isn't going to attract as many trucks and might be expected. He added Amazon did a "reasonable job" producing the study, which calls for new traffic measures but no continued funding of road maintenance.
The nearest existing logistics complex, Shafter's Wonderful Industrial Park, has no predetermined fee schedule for charging distribution centers according to their expected traffic impacts. Instead, City Manager Scott Hurlbert said, city officials negotiate traffic impact fees as part of development agreements with warehouse operators.
Those fees vary depending on the type of operation planned and the number of trips it is expected to generate, he said.
Money from those traffic fees goes into a fund that covers road development and maintenance. Hurlbert said he anticipates taking money from the fund to pay for a second entrance to the industrial park.
Other traffic-mitigation work associated with the park, he said, includes the addition of lanes along 7th Standard west of Highway 99. He added that same kind of roadwork may eventually be extended further west toward Interstate 5.
Hurlbert explained there could be further traffic impacts from construction of the state's high-speed rail through Kern County, if that project proceeds as planned. But distribution centers are certain to affect the flow of vehicles through the area.
"I think everyone recognizes that the issues are coming," he said.