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Council grills consultant over interchange plans
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Ceres councilmembers engaged in a grilling session last week fraught with skepticism and tough questions for the engineering consultant planning the new Mitchell/Service/99 interchange.

The City Council spent about 45 minutes of its Aug. 27 meeting hearing the intricate details for Nolte Engineering missing a series of deadlines.

Armed with $5.2 million, the city hired the firm in April to put planning on a fast track to enhance funding opportunities when the state comes up with a pot of highway money in 2008. Projects which have had all environmental studies complete and planning 65 percent completed are more competitive for millions of highway project dollars in California.

City officials say that a new and improved freeway interchange at Mitchell and Service roads is necessary for the marketability and development of the Southern Gateway for regional commercial uses.

The current interchange does not provide for a good highway access, particularly when it comes to Service Road and areas to be developed west of Highway 99.

Chris Metzger admitted his Nolte Engineering firm has had difficulty convincing Caltrans District 10 officials that the preliminary design is constructible. Caltrans officials failed to do their homework when the issue came up at a Constructibility Review meetings. He said, however, that Caltrans officials are now aware of the project and have signed onto most of the design elements.

Metzger said the July meeting with Caltrans was a "huge milestone," one in which the project was placed on the state's radar screen.

His assessment was backed up by Terry Bowen of California Strategies and Advocacy. She said much progress has been made with Caltrans in the last three months, with Caltrans going from not recognizing the project as a real one to the District 10 director being personally informed about it.

One area causing a delay is the proposed southbound on-ramps for both Service and Mitchell. Nolte designed a dual lane on-ramp a year ago when Caltrans was recommending them to be separate. Metzger insists that the dual lane concept meets Caltrans' standards and would work well but that the state would has a "professional preference" for the single lanes.

The single lane design was made to avoid affecting the existing overpass and adding more costs to the project.

Other snags have put the process a month farther behind than the council wanted.

"This is critical now," said Mayor Anthony Cannella. "We cannot lose critical months."

"Clearly we are paying maximum attention to the project as possible," said Metzger.

Metzger said potential sticky points are being identified and a plan to head the off.

Councilman Chris Vierra, who is employed as an engineer, said he wasn't feeling comfortable about Nolte's strategy.

"I feel that we should design to what Caltrans is going to require," said Vierra. "

City Manager Brad Kilger said he also has been very disappointed to the original schedule not being met but said the interchange project is a necessity.

"We've got to find funding because we're never going to have the money to build that thing," said Kilger.

Even if Ceres obtains funding in the State Transportation Project (STP) list, it won't be enough for construction.

"If we want to see this interchange built we must go to our congressman..." said Kilger. He said the city would have to be very aggressive in pursuing funding.

Kilger put some of the blame on Caltrans for its bureaucratic tardiness and cumbersome process of approvals. In some cases it has taken the state agency six to eight weeks to supply comments on design concepts.

The question the council was asking itself was: Should the maddening planning pace continue or be put on hold?

If the city puts planning on hold, all the work done up to this point is not lost work. Metzger said the work has a long shelf life and could be used to apply for funds in 2010.

"We are still in a position to submit for 2008," he said.

The council quizzed Metzger on a number of change orders to the contract which have burned more of the city's money. One change order was for $35,000 to reformat environmental documents. Cannella sarcastically quizzed why it would cost $35,000 to shift around papers in a binder. But he was corrected that new forms had to be filled out.

Metzger said Caltrans was recently put in charge of clearing environmental studies for federal highway projects in California and a different form is required.

The environmental document should be ready for public review by January with a certified EIR in April, the time when the state will be doling out those transportation dollars.

"Ever since we have started nothing positive has taken place," said Cannella to Nolte planners. He added that Nolte knew of the difficulties dealing with Caltrans and made allowances.

Terri Bowen, a consultant working with Nolte, suggested that the council wait to see what the California State Transportation Commission sets funding amounts in October.

Vierra said he wanted to see the environmental work proceed but suspend the design work. Cannella, however, wanted to see the design work but asked Nolte to put in writing anything that could derail the city from applying for 2008 funding.

The project involves:

• Shifting the freeway toward the east at Service Road;

• Widening the existing northbound off-ramp to Mitchell Road to two lanes;

• Building modified interchanges east and west of the freeway at Service Road;

• Widening Mitchell Road to six lanes between Rohde and Don Pedro roads;

• Widening Service Road to six lanes between Moffet and Mitchell roads;

• Realigning El Camino Avenue from Service Road to Sixth Street;

• Realigning Lucas Road to connect to Moffet Road south of Service Road rather than the existing connection to Service Road east of Moffet Road.

It's expected that the project would be split into two phases with the Mitchell portion being tackled first.