Ceres Courier: Caltrans seeks comments on service road interchange

December 6, 2017 
By: Jeff Benziger 

Caltrans is has opened its public comment period to accept opinions regarding plans to add a new interchange at Service Road and modify the Mitchell interchange.

City officials are hopeful that the new Service/Mitchell/Highway 99 interchange is started at the end of 2020 and completed by 2023. It’s believed the project will include one of California’s first “diverging diamond” designs.

The project will impact El Camino Avenue between Don Pedro and Service roads, said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells.

“El Camino will be eliminated between those two stretches,” said Wells. “Those properties that front El Camino will all be directly impacted. North of Don Pedro it’s more of a sliver, meaning the roadway, for the most part, will be within the right-of-way.”

The city has been slowly buying properties on El Camino in anticipation of the project. One the biggest purchases was weeks ago when the Ceres City Council agreed to buy the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East at 3900 Brickit Court for $1.2 million. The exchange is in escrow. Wells said the city will be leasing the church to the congregation for $1 for two years before it needs to be razed for interchange construction.

Not all of the needed parcels have been snatched up.

“At this point, with where the project is, when there’s an opportunity for a willing seller, that’s when we’ve been pursuing,” said Wells.

The city is trying to avert use of eminent domain to acquire all the necessary land for the new interchange footprint but Wells does not believe the city will not have to use the legal process.

Wells said that the bulb of Brickit Court will stay intact but access will come off of Don Pedro instead El Camino. The plan is to build a road south to Brickit Court from Don Pedro along the western boundary of the proposed Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center.

Also to be impacted on Brickit Court is Nelson & Sons Electric.

Comments are being accepted by Caltrans until Dec. 22. If there are no major comments or request for a public hearing, Caltrans will proceed with the project’s design.

Wells said the passage of SB1, with its slate of new gas and vehicle tax increases, will create more funding to help fund the $100 million project. Aside from SB 1, funding for the project would come from multiple sources, including redevelopment bond proceeds, traffic impact fees, $30 million from new Measure L road tax revenue and possibly federal highway funds.

The city had only two design concepts deemed feasible, however the other one did not significantly change the current conflict with traffic moving on the southbound freeway off-ramp at Mitchell Road with cross traffic coming onto the southbound 99 on-ramp. It also did nothing to improve circulation to west of the freeway, said Wells.

The diverging diamond concept is unique but not new. Its popularity is growing because of its safety factor. In a traditional interchange there are 26 points of conflict with only 14 with the diverging diamond. The design significantly reduces both the number and severity of accidents because of slower speeds and reduced chance for broadside crashes.

The nearest diverging diamond is operational near the Reno Airport south of I-80 and off of 580. One is being evaluating for Union Road in Manteca, which Wells called simpler than the more complex one for Ceres because of the railroad configuration.

While innovative, Wells said the design makes sense because of the constraints of land and land uses.

Ceres officials prefer the diverging diamond design as the best to handle traffic volumes into 2040. That’s why triple left-hand turn lanes are being designed for the intersection of Service and Mitchell roads. That equates to five or six times to movement potential than exists today.

The design also takes into consideration the limitations caused by the railroad tracks that run parallel just to the west of 99.

Wells said the diverging diamond design will allow full freeway access at Service Road.

“One of the key things that it does is provide us that direct access to west of 99,” he said.

Motorists will be able to get on and off the freeway in all directions at Service Road. That’s important because of the regional commercial uses that are being designed into Ceres’ new General Plan.

The next step is to circulate for public comment the detailed environmental study by June with a preferred alternative selected with construction designs occurring in 2018 with construction starting in 2020 and taking three years.

The new interchange would also eliminate the current way motorists exit southbound 99 at Mitchell Road. The southbound off-ramp and southbound on-ramps cross each other, forcing drivers coming off the southbound freeway to stop and wait for a break in southbound Mitchell Road traffic headed toward the on-ramp. Under the new design, the only freeway access at Mitchell Road to remain would be the southbound on-ramp and the northbound freeway on-ramp.

The diamond design concept is well explained in several Youtube.com videos. Normally a vehicle traveling over a freeway overpass would be on the right side of the structure. The diverging diamond flips that pattern, mostly because it allows for less traffic conflicts, better and increased traffic flows and better access to the freeway. Proper signage is a “critical component” in keeping motorists from becoming confused about movement, said Wells.

Diverging diamond interchanges have worked successfully in more than 50 locations in Colorado, Missouri, Florida, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Texas, Utah, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, New York, Georgia and other states. Europe has used the design for about 40 years, said Wells.

The interchange design is key for the development of the area along Mitchell Road near Highway 99. The Mitchell Road Shopping Center with the Walmart Supercenter has been approved north of Service Road but a triangle piece to the south can be developed once it’s known where right of way is delineated.

The city has been planning anew Service/Mitchell/99 interchange since 1997. The original design called for couplets – where Mitchell Road was southbound and Moore Road was the northbound movement – but it was scrapped for an expensive 2002 design plan which Caltrans ultimately rejected in 2009. The city dusted off the interchange project in 2011 and consulted Caltrans about better designs.