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99 landscaping delayed
The barren ground around the Whitmore Interchange will stay brown a while longer.

The state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) originally included money for the landscaping portion of the project, then spend it, but has allocated $700,000 in new funds. But city officials say Ceres will have to look at the bare ground - and accumulating trash - for well over another year.

City officials shared their frustration over the appearance of the new $49.1 million interchange project, which was opened to traffic in April 2011.

Through the design process, the state said it had enough money left over to install the landscaping, said City Engineer Toby Wells.

"For whatever reason, they used their money and there was no money for landscaping and it was removed from the project," said Wells.

Ceres City Hall applied pressure on Caltrans - with the help of other area officials and StanCOG (the Stanislaus Council of Governments) - to reinstate funding. The state relinquished and have earmarked the funding. But not even landscaping is as simple as planting trees and shrubs, and plants. Because the project was dropped and then picked up again, it's deemed a new project which requires new environmental study. The project must also be engineered.

"With Caltrans everything is complex," said City Engineer Toby Wells.

Wells estimated that the landscaping project will cost $700,000 to make the right of ways greener. That includes design, installing a water system, bark, trees, shrubs, plant material and maintenance.

The city hopes the work can start in the fall of 2013.

Vice Mayor Ken Lane expressed mild disgust that the interchange is far from beautiful. Trash has accumulated along a chain link fence below the risen portion of Whitmore Avenue.

"It's kind of nasty right now," said Lane. "Their level of maintenance is not real robust."

Wells told the council that Caltrans has only four employees to clean up state freeway right of way in Caltrans District 10 between Fresno and San Joaquin County.

"Caltrans is no different than any other agency; they've cut back on employees and this is a lower priority. We don't have the resources to change it."