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Contractor may not leave after all
City officials believe a plan is in the works to keep the contractor on the Whitmore Avenue /Highway 99 interchange project and not abandon it in the short run after all. The best case scenario: The project could be finished by November. Worst-case: The contractor actually disappears for months only to come back later to finish it up by summer 2011.

Last month the contractor, Nehemiah Construction of Benecia, announced plans to pull back from the job for five months in order to pursue two other road projects in El Dorado County. The contractor is far ahead of schedule and "has the option of disappearing for several months and coming back to complete the project on time and there's nothing we can do," said a Ceres City Engineer Glenn Gebhardt. Nehemiah's crews were expected to disappear by the end of May but stayed in place. Contractually the company is only obligated to finish the project for the state by July 2011. City officials have heard through the gravevine that Caltrans is making an effort to keep the crews in place and finish the job early.

"Caltrans has told us they are negotiating with the contractor to get them to stay," said Gebhardt. "They haven't told us the details ... but we hear they are releasing the retention early so that it gives them incentive to stay."

Gebhardt expressed frustration in "getting a little trace of a story every week," saying the city would like to give the motoring public a heads-up but finds the situation changes regularly. A call to Nehemiah Construction's project manager was not returned as of press deadline.

"I'm hesitant to say they're going to stay and finish. As of today they're actually finishing up but that could change tomorrow," said Gebhardt. "I can't say for sure but they could be done by November. But they could also disappear."

With the first new overpass structure complete and in operation, the project is currently in its second big phase. With the old narrow 1965 overpass dismantled, a new overpass - a twin to the one just built - is going up. Bull dozers have been sculpting the ground just west of the KFC to make way for a new Whitmore northbound offramp as well as an onramp which will loop off from the lanes of eastbound Whitmore Avenue to northbound 99. The design of the old northbound onramp was deficient as its sharp turn didn't allow cars for rapid acceleration onto Highway 99.

"They're also working very hard to open up the northbound offramp near KFC," said Gebhardt. "They're within a couple of weeks of finishing that."

The Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and the Chevron station at Whitmore Avenue west of Central Avenue are among those most affected by the closure of the northbound freeway offramp at Whitmore Avenue.

In May Jay Zolmer of Nehemiah suggested that his company was 80 percent complete with the project with 40 percent of the contract time left. The company complained that Caltrans did not provide any financial incentive to finish the job early despite being $2 million under the engineer's estimate. Zolmer thought the $16.4 million project would be abandoned from June to November.

The new offramp west of KFC will tie directly to a new signal light east of the overpass. Gebhardt said it will be tricky to better coordinate traffic lights on Whitmore Avenue to prevent backups in traffic.

One of the last things to take place will be work west of Highway 99. A new connection is being added to allow for southbound turns onto Railroad Avenue. It replaces the right sharp hair-pin turn that could not be navigated by trucks needing to access businesses and industries on Railroad Avenue near the cemetery.