Travelers to the Central Coast have long been wary of Highway 46, a heavily traveled two-lane road that has been the site of many fatal head-on collisions.
But a 20-year campaign to widen the roadway may soon come to an end. The California Transportation Commission could soon approve funding to expand the last stretch of Highway 46 in Kern County from two lanes to four.
In November, CTC staff recommended the commission approve $10 million for the project. If approved, construction would complete a goal that has long been a target for local politicians and transportation planners.
“This is huge,” said Kern Council of Governments Executive Director Ahron Hakimi. “This is something that I’ve been working on, Kern COG has been working on, Caltrans and all of our elected officials, for literally 20 years.”
Actor James Dean died on Highway 46 in 1955, just across the Kern County border, and the roadway has been the site of so many fatalities it has been called “Blood Alley.” As one of the only arteries connecting Bakersfield to popular vacation spots like Morro Bay, thousands of Kern County residents travel it each year to escape the summer heat.
“The entire Kern County portion from I-5 to San Luis Obispo County was a two lane road,” Hakimi said. “You literally held your breath for long long stretches when people would get impatient and cross the double yellow line.”
In Kern County, only the five miles directly east of the border have yet to be converted into a four-lane expressway. Funding has already been obtained for two miles, and the CTC’s vote in early December could clear the way for the remaining three to be completed.
That would put a cap on the 30-plus miles between Interstate 5 and the border that had only been two lanes.
For former State Senator Dean Florez, who now serves on the California Air Resources Board, the project represents a successful government collaboration.
“I really think this should be named bipartisan freeway because it was the only time that I remember that we all really worked together,” he said. “(Former State Assemblyman and U.S. Rep.) Kevin McCarthy, (former Rep.) Bill Thomas and myself. It was like no partisanship whatsoever.”
He helped lead the charge to “fix 46” after reading about the dangers of the highway, he said.
“Like any politician at that time, you wake up, you read your local newspaper and you lean over to your staff and say, ‘are we doing anything about this?’” he said. “It truly was one of the most dangerous highways in America and clearly in California.”
Construction should start over the next few months and last for the next two and a half years to complete the expansion.
That would leave only a short section of Highway 46 on the San Luis Obispo side to be expanded. Efforts are being made to widen the Antelope Grade, just before Highway 46 connects to Highway 41, but funding has yet to be secured for the project.
Still, Florez says he’s noticed a difference in people’s attitudes toward the roadway over the past 20 years.
“When I do walk around, people say just thank you,” he said. “That’s been the biggest change in the 20 years, is that whole dialogue of when people see me and say this. I know then it’s made a difference.”