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Parcel bought for future interchange
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A 2.16-acre piece of property needed for a new freeway interchange at Service Road has been purchased by the city for $388,960.

The city has won approval from Caltrans to pursue what is called the "diverging diamond" design concept for a new interchange at Service Road and Highway 99. The design requires a different configuration of property and right-of-way from parcels along both Service Road near Highway 99 and Mitchell Road near Hwy. 99. One essential piece needed was the 2.16 acres at 3912 El Camino Avenue. It is located northwest of Brickit Court.

The purchase price, approved by the Ceres City Council on Jan. 11, is based on the highest and best use of the property, in this case for industrial uses. The purchase price includes the cost of demolishing vacant structures on the site.

A city staff report indicates that the property owner approached the city to see if the property was needed for the future interchange and the city was interested. It turned out that the property will mostly be needed for a storm drainage basin and a portion by the northbound on-ramp.

City Manager Toby Wells indicated that a portion of the industrial park on Brickit Court will be affected and said the city is currently exploring alternatives for how these properties will be impacted by new circulation for the area.

"I don't have a number yet on the total number of parcels that will be impacted," said Wells. "Some parcels we will only need a portion, others will be complete purchases. We are currently working on the right-of-way needs and expect it to be finalized in the next couple of months as we continue to work through the necessary steps with Caltrans."

In December the city purchased a 2.46-acre piece of property at 2807 E. Service Road for $700,000. The land was needed because both interchange designs would change access to the area.

Wells said Ceres is "still in the running" to build the first "diverging diamond" freeway interchange in California. Manteca is proposing one as well, he said, but said Ceres may be farther along in the process.

Another alternative is still on the table which may be cheaper but is not desired by the city. That design would seek to correct the way Mitchell's southbound off-ramp conflicts with the southbound on-ramp but it would not improve southbound freeway access to the area west of Highway 99 where the city hopes to see industrial parks and more retail built.

Before a preferred alternative is picked, detailed environmental study must be completed. The environmental document should be circulated for public comment by July with a preferred alternative selected and approved in early 2017.

Wells believe the proposed diverging diamond interchange design, which would cost an estimated $125 million, would be completely functional. He said Ceres' existing interchanges are "somewhat dysfunctional in some way, shape or form."

Ceres officials prefer the diverging diamond design as the best to handle traffic volumes into 2040. Part of the remedy to handling future traffic demands includes triple left-hand turn lanes proposed for the intersection of Service and Mitchell roads. That would handle five or six times the movement potential than exists today. The design also takes into consideration the physical limitations caused by the railroad tracks that run parallel just to the west of the freeway.

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

"You can get on and off the freeway in all directions at Service Road," said Wells.

The interchange design would also eliminate the current route which motorists exit southbound 99 at Mitchell Road. The southbound off-ramp and southbound on-ramps cross each other, making drivers coming off the freeway stop and wait for a break in southbound Mitchell Road traffic headed onto the freeway. That southbound off-ramp at Mitchell would be eliminated. Those wanting to get off the freeway could get off on an off-ramp at Service Road. Mitchell Road would still have its at southbound on-ramp and northbound on-ramp and off-ramp.

The diamond design is explained well in several video. Normally a vehicle travelling westbound over a freeway overpass would be on the north side while eastbound motorists would be on the south side of the overpass. 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 are a "critical component" in keeping motorists from becoming confused about movement, said Wells.

The diverging diamond is considered safer than other designs because it results in a slower traffic movement - about 25-35 mph - and affords less chance for serious accidents.

Diverging diamond interchanges have worked successfully in 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. In all, 51 locations in the United States use the design.

A final interchange design is deemed 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 a new 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.

If the city gets its way, construction would start in about 2020 and be completed in three years. Wells said the project depends on the passage of a countywide half-cent transportation tax in November 2016 which may fund approximately $31 million of the project. The Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG) Policy Board has yet to outline how tax monies would be spent, however. The city may also use $9 million in Public Facility Fees collected on new development and would need to obtain state and federal grants. There is also the possibility of issuing bonds to finance.

In 2008 the city approved a Gateway Project for the two-parceled property with hotels and fast food restaurants but it never developed because of the recession. Developers now plan to "figure out the best land configuration for that parcel now that there's a different layout for a potential interchange," the city manager said.