School is almost out and the lure of California’s Central Coast with its beaches, restaurants, quaint villages, wineries and hiking trails will draw many Kern County families west along Highway 46.
More than a decade of efforts to widen the critical valley-coast link paid off in 2009 when construction started.
The widening work has made the road safer, giving drivers a swifter route around slow-moving semi-trucks, toy haulers and RVs. But it hasn’t prevented accidents and deaths in the shrinking section where the traffic still slides past on two side-by-side lanes.
Six accidents in the past two months have claimed five lives, including some from Bakersfield.
Construction crews are working to close that gap and link the finished widening projects in both counties. San Luis Obispo County transportation planners are searching for money to improve the Antelope grade and — just to the west — the infamous “Y” intersection of Highways 41 and 46.
But those improvements are still years away from getting funding and being constructed.
So, after the recent spate of accidents, Republican Assemblymen Vince Fong, of Bakersfield, and Jordan Cunningham, of San Luis Obispo County, are hoping to make the route safer in the short term.
THE HUMAN COST
Jesse Acebedo, 68, was driving west on Highway 46 in his silver GMC Sierra just after 2 p.m. on March 31 when a semi-truck hit him head-on, according to California Highway Patrol reports.
The former Kern County sheriff’s deputy and former Wasco Union High School District board member — retired since 2004 — had just passed the Shandon rest stop.
A Peterbilt hauling a load of spent brewing grain from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. was heading in the opposite direction, according to The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune.
The truck’s driver drifted off the right side of the road, overcorrected and swerved into the westbound lanes of traffic, clipping a Dodge Dakota, blowing a tire and slamming into Acebedo’s Sierra.
Acebedo, whom friends described on Facebook as a funny, passionate public servant who — his obituary said — loved shuttling between Bakersfield and Morro Bay and attending his grandchildren’s soccer and basketball games, died.
Then May 13, Robert Villegas, of Bakersfield, died when Haneul Kyung Lee, 61, of Fresno, tried to turn from eastbound Highway 46 to northbound Highway 41 right in front of his westbound Chevy Impala.
Villegas’ passenger, James Bray, of Bakersfield, suffered a fractured femur and a punctured lung in the crash.
In all six fatal accidents, human error played a major role.
In three other accidents — one of which caused minor injuries to Bakersfield resident Leticia Lopez — drivers drifted into oncoming traffic at the wrong time.
And another driver tried to dart onto Highway 41 from Highway 46, triggering a fatal collision.
MAKING 46 SAFER
Assemblymen Fong and Cunningham met with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty on Tuesday to talk about options for making Highway 46 safer going into the summer recreation season.
“We went through the maps. We looked at what has been done. We had a first good discussion,” Fong said.
The next step is to get down to the regional level.
“We’re going to meet with the district director and flesh out what’s possible,” Fong said. “As the summer travel season picks up, we want to make sure there are safety measures in place.”
Jim Shivers, a spokesman for Caltrans District 5, wrote in an email that road builders have been fighting for years to widen Highway 46 and eliminate the head-on or T-bone collisions that can take such a high toll in lives.
But there is only so much money and the design, environmental and construction of the improvements can only move at a certain pace.
That’s why Caltrans has installed lighted warning lights at the “Y” intersection between 41 and 46 and added heavy rumble strips between the two lanes of traffic to quickly remind drivers who drift across lanes to get back on their side of the line, Shivers wrote.
But even those efforts can’t stop drivers from making mistakes or risky maneuvers like the one that cost Villegas his life at the intersection of Highway 41 and Highway 46.
“This intersection has adequate storage lengths for the turning vehicles, has an overhead yellow flashing beacon, has lighting for night-time illumination, has excellent sight distance for the turning vehicles to see approaching traffic. Driver error is what appears to be the cause of the recent accidents,” Shivers wrote.
Fong said he’s looking for more, possibly including increased traffic enforcement in the critical construction gap.
MORE WIDENING WORK TO COME
The final solution is to complete the widening work on Highway 46 between Interstate 5 and Highway 101 in Paso Robles.
Most of the widening work in Kern County has been completed, taking four lanes of asphalt east more than 27 miles from the San Luis Obispo County line to within striking distance of I-5.
The last 6-mile stretch from Brown Material Road to I-5 has yet to be constructed but efforts to fund and design it are underway.
Construction on the San Luis Obispo side brings the wider route closer to Kern County every day.
Currently, heavy equipment is working near the small community of Shandon.
That phase of the project will end just past the Shandon rest stop.
According to Shiver, work on the environmental review for the next phase, the 5 miles from the rest stop to Jack’s Ranch Café, is ongoing with funding for the work expected to be available in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
After that, the transportation agency will tackle the two final segments.
They will include construction of an interchange of some sort between highways 41 and 46 — eliminating the traffic conflict that contributed to the death of legendary actor James Dean in 1955 and Villegas earlier this month.
The final piece of the puzzle will be widening the road up the Antelope Grade to the Kern County line.
Widening the whole route has carried a hefty price tag — with more than $200 million estimated to still be needed.
But Shiver is convinced it's making a difference.
“Caltrans has spent nearly $300 million on four-lane improvements between Paso Robles and Bakersfield,” Shiver wrote in his email. “We are absolutely confident this approach is improving the safety of the traveling public. We are optimistic the recent passage of SB1 will provide additional funds to continue the modernization of the corridor."