Bill Deaver

Some of the best news I have ever heard about transportation in Eastern Kern was announced last week by Caltrans District 8 in San Bernardino County.

The good news is that the Highway 58 bypass around Kramer Junction and its interchange with U.S. Highway 395 opened for traffic.

The announcement added that the old section of the highway, one of the deadliest stretches of road in the region, has been closed.

Caltrans District 8 spokesperson Kimberly Cherry said all lanes of the new, 13.3-mile road are open except for a short portion east of Kramer Junction.

The project should be completed by June 2020, “weather permitting,” Cherry said.

Final work is also nearing completion on bridges that will carry Highway 395 traffic over BNSF Railway tracks, work that is being performed by the railroad.

The nearly $200 million project was begun in January, 2018.

‘Horrible scenes’

In all of my years as a reporter and editor, the most horrible traffic collision scenes I have ever observed were on that stretch of road, in person and in photos.

The most gruesome was a photo taken by the late Ron Brady of Boron, a retired NASA lensman, of a charred human skeleton sitting up in the driver’s seat of a van, one of the many victims of that death trap. Needless to say, we did not run that grisly photo in the paper.

I also remember arriving at a crash just east of Boron one night and looking up at the cab of an 18-wheeler and seeing the dead driver sitting in his cab.

These are just a couple of the crashes that occurred on that highway, especially on that horrible curve just east of Boron, which is now closed.

Always dangerous

While that curve was the worst feature of the highway, much of it from Mojave to Kramer was bad when we arrived in Mojave in 1948.

Like all highways in the region in those days, Highway 466, as it was known from Barstow to Bakersfield, was two lanes.

To make things even worse, there was a stretch between Muroc Junction and Boron consisting of deep and deadly dips.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, drive (carefully) east on Redrock-Randsburg Road from Highway 14 to Randsburg.

In the spring, watch for sheep. On one memorable trip, I rolled to the top of a dip to stare eyeball to eyeball with an Air Force backseater in an F-4 from George AFB who was laughing his butt off at me.

As I noted above, there were no four-lane highways here in those days. The last remnant of 466 east of Mojave is Twenty Mule Team Road from the turnoff west of Boron to Kramer Junction, now closed east of Boron.

Truck traffic

According to Caltrans, “(T)he purpose of the (new route) is to accommodate increased volumes of oversized vehicles,” and it is also expected to reduce congestion, improve safety, reduce accidents, and improve operational efficiency by separating slow-moving vehicles from faster traffic.

It is also expected to improve the reliability of freight, the major traffic on the east-west highway, which, along with the railroads is a major “goods movement” corridor for east-west traffic, more than half of which is big trucks.

Caltrans also noted that the project is “nationally significant” and the final gap in an otherwise uninterrupted four-lane expressway and freeway between U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo County and Interstates 40 and 15 in Barstow.

Roadblock

Completion of the project also eliminates the worst roadblock in this region.

The intersection of 58 and 395 at Kramer Junction was governed by a traffic signal which backed up vehicles in all directions during heavy traffic.

On busy holiday weekends traffic could back up for miles.

Kern County widened the route between Bakersfield and Barstow decades ahead of San Bernardino County. I believe the highway became four lanes between Bakersfield and Mojave in 1964, was widened to four lanes between Mojave and Boron and the San Bernardino County line ea rlier, and bypassed Mojave in 2004.

We in eastern Kern have long wondered why it has taken San Bernardino County so long to modernize their section of this busy and important route.

Kern County Planning Director said the long delay was due to environmental concerns over the Desert Tortoise, which was plentiful in the area.

Truck stops

To serve the many trucks that use the highway, a new Pilot truck stop is operating at Kramer Junction and a Love’s center for Boron is in the final planning stages, according to Oviatt.

Two major truck stops a few blocks apart have been built in Tehachapi to handle the truck traffic on this busy route. City Manager Greg Garrett says travel centers contribute jobs and sales tax to the city. One is operated by Flying J and the other by Pilot.

An excellent site for a travel center was included at Exit 172 just east of Mojave when the Mojave bypass was built in 2014.

Problems with Caltrans’ drainage design for the site delayed construction of a center whose developer then passed away.

A Flying J center was planned for Exit 167 at the freeway and California City Boulevard but access was poorly designed and some shennanigins involving a member of the California Transportation Commission, who lost his position, nixed that project.

Reaction

Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kern Council of Governments, said “Kern COG applauds this long overdue project that will improve safety and relieve congestion.”

“The opening of the Kramer junction bypass is great news for Kern County motorists, and the thousands of motorists from across the nation who use State Route 58 every day to access interstate 40 and the rest of the United States. The long delays and impacts associated with those delays, both financial and environmental, at Kramer Junction are finally solved.”

Let’s hope so.

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