By: Sandy Ornelas
Assistant to the News Editor
The city of Bakersfield will be starting a new construction project in 2015 to improve the traffic flow on 24th street, expanding the street to three lanes in each direction from the State Route 99 interchange to east of M Street. The project includes landscaping the sides of the street within the residential area and also includes improvements to the State Route 99 Interchange, the Oak and 24th Street intersection and the 23rd/24th Street area. The 24th street project will leave 23 families without a home.
The City Council approved the project on Feb. 12, voting six to one. Council member Terry Maxwell is the only one who opposed this project.
According to BakersfieldFreeways.us, the 24th Street Improvement Project will widen and realign 24th Street and its intersection with State Route 99. The project will also widen Oak Street and its 24th Street intersection.
Janet Wheeler, The Public Outreach Manager for the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, states the project is currently in the final design and right-of-way acquisition phases. The construction is expected to begin in 2015 and will take between a year and 18 months to complete.
Wheeler added that the city would benefit from this project because improvements are needed to accommodate the city’s current and future traffic needs.
“Today, 24th Street is the busiest street in Bakersfield and traffic congestion will only continue to increase in future years. Traffic studies project a nearly 50 percent increase over the next 20 years,” said Wheeler.
Julie Young is one of the families that will be affected by this project. She has been living in her home with her husband for 32 years and raised her sons in that house.
“We do not know where we are going or when it’s going to happen. The city has not contacted me on a date, but we do know it will be sometime this year,” Young said.
The estimated cost of the 24th street project will be approximately $55.5 million for the final design, right-of-way acquisition, utility relocations construction and construction management services. Taxpayer money is funding the project and former Congressman William M. Thomas, who led the effort to secure $630 million for road projects in the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act made this construction project possible.
Young attended the city council meeting on Feb. 12 to speak out and oppose the project. As of now, she is fighting to keep her house from being demolished.
“The house is so unique because of when it was built. It has beautiful crown moulding with a wooden stair case and floors,” Young said.
Young states that her house was built in 1920 and represents the post-Victorian style era.
“It is heartbreaking that a home with so much history will be demolished because the City wants to get more traffic down 24th street,” Young said.
Wheeler states that it has been challenging to make necessary road improvements through a developed area.
“However, 24th Street is one of the primary routes into downtown, as well as an east-west cross-town corridor. 24th Street has also functioned as part of the state highway system since the 1920s. 24th Street is currently built to handle 40,000 vehicles per day. In 2010, the average daily traffic counts were 62,000, despite the lack of traffic capacity improvements for this corridor,” Wheeler said.
Vanessa Vangel is the leader of the group Citizens Against the Widening Project and is one of the families that will be affected by the project. She has lived in her house for 17 years and her mother, who lives next door, has lived in her house for 35 years.
“Primarily it is affecting my 82-year-old mother. She and I own houses next door to one another and she is extremely nervous about the potential health risk that the construction of the widening project is going to put her in,” Vangel said.
Vangel opposes the 24th street project for a couple of reasons. The first is the lack of historical districts in Bakersfield.
“Shame on Bakersfield for not having a historic district that represents not only the beautiful architecture, but the homes of the pioneers of Bakersfield. Westchester is the most significantly historic district in Bakersfield,” Vangel said.
The second is the health risk. The construction will put the elderly and the young at risk of respiratory disease, asthma, heart disease and Valley Fever.
Vangel states it is important to stop this construction project because residents will pay taxes on a 30-year loan that the city took out to help fund this project. On residents PG&E bill there is a third charge that goes to pay for these loans, so everybody will pay for this, not just the people in this area. There is also a gas tax, Vangel states. A percentage of the gas taxes when one goes to put gas in the car is deposited to the construction of roads.
“It should be a great concern to everybody in Bakersfield. This project needs to be diverted to another location. The plan is not wrong, the location is wrong. There is power in numbers and we still have the option to stop this,” Vangel said.
This project will also negatively impact businesses as well. More than 300 parking spaces will be eliminated in the business district.
To contact Vannessa Vangel to be a part of the group or to donate money to help stop the 24th street improvement project contact (661) 345-6512.