Bakersfield City Council voted 6-1 to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report on the 24th Street improvement project, which approved project advancement into the final phases of design and property acquisition.
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell was the only voice of opposition.
“He’s doing his job,” said Vanessa Vangel, a founding member of the group Citizens Against the Widening Project. “He’s representing the majority of his constituents, because the majority do not want it.”
In regard to his vote of opposition, Maxwell said, “I’m not a politician. I’m trying to do the right thing. I tell people and I do what I believe, not what I believe they want to hear.”
Maxwell said that despite the lopsided vote, his colleagues were respectful of his decision and simply disagree with what he had to say, which he doesn’t take personally.
Although Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan did lash out at Maxwell after his 55-minute speech critiquing the EIR and offering alternatives, he explained that she later sent him a letter to apologize.
“Everybody knew that I had spent the most time researching,” Maxwell said. “I was tremendously well-prepared.”
He maintains that the Environmental Impact Report does not meet standards under the California Environmental Quality Act, and the issues leave “pretty good grounds for lawsuit.”
Under the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, the project involves a redesign to widen 24th Street by two lanes between D and Olive streets, and by a lane in each direction on 23rd and 24th streets between D and M streets. The redesign also shows improvement plans for the Highway 99 interchange and 24th and Oak Street intersection.
Twenty-three single-family homes, 293 parking spaces, and more than 200 trees stand in the path of demolition.
City officials have stated that the widening project is a public safety concern and will improve the area to represent the gateway to downtown.
Bakersfield College professor and Westchester resident Randal Beeman agreed with this statement, saying, “To me, the 24th Street Parkway is about progress, though I respect those who feel differently. I think the City Council, the city manager, and most importantly former Congressman Bill Thomas should be commended for securing the future progress of the city through these bold transportation projects.”
Beeman explained that at various times during the day, 24th Street becomes gridlocked and, if nothing is done, the problem with traffic congestion will continue to increase.
“Cars sitting still waste gas, and wasted time sitting in traffic also saps economic productivity and creates more smog in what is already the most polluted city in America,” he said. “As for the widening, it makes sense environmentally and economically, in addition to the safety benefits.
“Using eminent domain is always controversial and painful. Most often it’s done to poor neighborhoods to people who lack the resources to be heard. In this case, the people impacted are very vocal, as they should be.”
One group in particular has risen in opposition of the plans to widen 24th Street – Citizens Against the Widening Project. Vangel said the group formed in May of 2012, as soon as the draft EIR was available. The group was able to compile more than 600 signatures by residents city-wide on a petition against the project.
Vangel explained that the project has been “looming over Westchester for 50 years,” and now due to Thomas obtaining $630 million in federal-earmarked funds for the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, the project has finally come to fruition.
According to Vangel, the main objectives of opposition are to protect and preserve the most historic neighborhood and district in Bakersfield, prevent a decrease in residents’ property values, and prevent the area’s residents from being exposed to extreme health risks.
The group has seen a $60,000 decrease in property value on one resident’s home just when the project plans were pending, which made members feel confident in their assessment that the values will continue to take a nosedive, according to Vangel.
“We feel strongly that it is going to negatively impact our property values, because six lanes is equivalent to a freeway,” Vangel said. “They don’t call it a freeway, but if it looks like a freeway, acts like a freeway, and smells like a freeway, it’s a freeway.”
The group is adamant about concerns for the well-being of the residents as there are expressed concerns in the EIR for health risks including Valley Fever, asthma and other respiratory illnesses due to the construction.
Vangel expressed her concern that young children and the elderly are even more susceptible to contracting these illnesses, stating, “On my block alone, the average age is 70 years old. I live next door to my mother, she’s 82, and it scares me to death what this project could potentially do for somebody her age.”
In the EIR, there are mitigation methods outlined, and in regard to the health concerns, mitigation methods offered include water trucks and the advice to stay indoors, along with pets, during the summer, and if residents need to go out during winter, it is recommended to wear a dust mask and put a dust mask on their children.
Vangel said that members have repeatedly presented important arguments using facts and figures to the City Council to then be patronized and have the concerns remain ignored, saying, “We were ignored, and that really makes us mad, because the majority said no, and they’ve said no for 50 years.”
The group’s concerns about City Council exceed just its feelings of being ignored and patronized. According to Vangel and another member of Citizens Against the Widening Project, Randa Hunter, Councilwoman Sullivan admitted to them, in front of six witnesses, that she had not read the EIR.
“She certified a $62-million document, and hadn’t read it,” Vangel said. “That, to us, is so irresponsible of an elected official.”
Hunter went on to say, “This is a bad attitude for the City Council. It reflects on their ignorance of this project.”
Vangel expressed her feelings that by City Council relying on staff to do its due diligence and research – excluding Maxwell – it has vacated the purpose of being voted for by the members’ constituents.
According to statements by City Manager Alan Tandy, the federal-earmarked funds are set to run out before the complete funding of all projects, but the city is committed to paying for the remainder.
The city has plans to take out approximately $270 million in loans, which will grant a five-year grace period with interest accruing. The loans are to fund the remainder of the 24th Street project and other projects under the Thomas Roads Improvement Project.
Citizens Against the Widening Project members expressed their concern that the city is committing younger generations to a 35-year loan that they cannot guarantee it will have the revenue stream to pay.
“They make it sound like…’we can just crank out this money,’ you know what? I taught economics; there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” Hunter said.
In a 2008 advice letter by Pacific Gas and Electric Company in regard to a 1-percent franchise surcharge for gas and electric customers in the city of Bakersfield, it outlined the surcharge agreement guidelines, purpose, and background of the surcharge. Based on gross annual gas and electric receipts from 2007, PG&E estimated the 1 percent surcharge to result in a $1.22 increase in a typical residential electric bill and a $0.40 increase to a typical residential gas bill, which would in turn collect an additional $3,199,234 in annual revenue.
The advice letter states, “The city has represented that the additional revenues from the franchise surcharge will be earmarked for highway and road projects.”
Bakersfield’s city website also provides a page on the 1 percent franchise surcharge by PG&E and Southern California Gas Franchise, in which it states that the revenue from these surcharges was designated by the city upon approval to be used only for roads programs.
However, in an article by The Bakersfield Californian, Tandy denied Citizens Against the Widening Project’s claims that there were surcharges by PG&E that would contribute to funding the road projects, saying, “There are no increases in those fees. The franchises with PG&E and SCE are forever at the existing rates so they can’t be increased.”
Members of Citizens Against the Widening Project expressed concerns that the city had intentionally tried to divide their opposition by separating the north and south sides of 24th Street. There are questions to whether the offering of the cul de sacs was just an attempt to appease residents south of 24th Street. They explained that the cul de sacs and pending projects have created turmoil in their community.
According to the group, after one resident declined to donate 12 feet of his front yard to the development of the cul de sac, he faced so much intense intimidation by proponents of the cul de sacs that he moved and sold his house, which was in turn bought by a resident of Myrtle Street. Members explained that the man who bought the house stood at a council meeting to say that he bought the house, not to live in it, not to resell it, but to ensure that Myrtle Street could get its cul de sac.
Although the group was also against the cul de sacs, there are residents who were in favor of the addition.
Beeman expressed his concern that prior to the cul de sacs being implemented, the cross traffic was dangerous, and “problematic at best.”
“Since the cul de sacs have been put into place, my wife and I noticed that there are actually children in this neighborhood,” he said. “And for them, it is clearly a better situation without the cross traffic.”
Citizens Against the Widening Project offered many alternatives to the widening of 24th Street. Some alternatives include projects like the Hageman flyover, funneling traffic through Golden State Highway, and synchronization of the lights.
The group made it clear that the opposition did not end with the decision by City Council. Vangel said that the decision made them even more fired up.
“If the widening does take place, they’re going to be dealing with us for the entire length of the construction.”