The widening of the last two-lane stretch of road on Highway 46 between Bakersfield and the Central Coast could be put on hold if a Caltrans proposal is approved.
Last week, the state transportation department released a plan to divert $32 million from Highway 46 and 99 improvements into an uncommitted reserve that would fund light rail and other projects connected to climate change goals established by Gov. Gavin Newsom in an executive order.
The executive order prompts the state to begin construction projects that would lower fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gases.
As a result, Caltrans decided to take $15.5 million from a project that would have widened a stretch of Highway 46 known as the Antelope Grade between the Kern County border and the Cholame “Y” intersection where actor James Dean died in a car collision in 1955.
The department also wants to take $16 million from widening projects on Highway 99 in Madera and Tulare counties and place that funding in the uncommitted reserve.
The plan has drawn criticism from officials in both Kern and San Luis Obispo counties, who say the state should continue to upgrade a roadway that is widely known for its head-on collisions and fatalities.
“It is absolutely asinine to me to say they are going to wind up with a $60 million unassigned pool of money and they take $10 million out of an ability to create a two- lane road to a four-lane road,” former Rep. Bill Thomas told the California Transportation Commission at a hearing Tuesday. “I just don’t understand it.”
The commission will ultimately make the decision on approving Caltrans’ plan.
Assemblymen Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, and Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, sent letters to the commission asking them to return funding to the widening project.
“Over the past 20-plus years, the state has invested north of $400 million to upgrade and make this crucial, state priority highway safer and more reliable,” Cunningham said in the letter. “The Antelope Grade project is the golden spike in this process — the final segment of seven to be widened. I see no reason for the state to cut itself short. We must finish strong.”
Fong noted the route had experienced a fatality rate three times higher than the state average.
Caltrans has defended its decision to cut funding for the project. Department spokesman Matt Rocco stressed the project had not been canceled, and it would be eligible for funding in future funding cycles.
“Everybody is left with the impression that the project has completely been canceled, and that is not the case,” he said.
He added that local agencies had not provided enough funds to match those doled out by Caltrans, and claimed the decision to remove the funding had been made before the governor’s executive order.
“The executive order doesn’t divert funds from the highway and these decisions were not made because of the executive order,” he said.
However, Caltrans said in the proposal that its reserve fund would specifically be used to address the governor’s climate change executive order.
Another Highway 46 project received bad news in the proposal.
Kern Council of Governments had hoped Caltrans would add funds to a Highway 46 widening project in Lost Hills that recently received a $17.5 million grant from the federal government.
The project is around $30 million away from being fully funded, according to KernCOG executive director Ahron Hakimi, and Caltrans could have helped fill the gap.
He said he and other planning organizations were “blindsided” by Caltrans.
“Not only was the public upset of what was contained in this document, but the CTC commissioners themselves were very critical of the document, and were crystal clear that they were not happy with what was presented to them,” he said.
He added that KernCOG would work with Caltrans to try to reverse the decision on funding the Highway 46 and 99 projects.
“I’m hopeful, at least on 46, that we can work out a solution in the next two months,” he said. “I’m not confident that everything we object to in that document will just change.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to add Assemblyman Vince Fong's position.