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Under budget and months ahead of its July deadline, the Whitmore Avenue/Highway 99 interchange will be deemed complete as Friday, April 15.

Caltrans had scheduled a Tuesday morning ribbon cutting ceremony to formally open the northbound Highway 99 off-ramp. It was rescheduled until Friday, April 15. The ceremony will include Caltrans and city officials gathering on El Camino Avenue between Poplar and Magnolia, west of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"I think we started planning for it in 1989," said Joe Hollstein, the former Ceres city engineer who kick-started it. "It's about 20 years by the time we got it going."

Upon retirement in March 2007, Hollstein handed off the project to Phil Scott who left and handed it off to Michael Brinton, now the assistant city engineer/Deputy Director Public Works.

Caltrans has a complicated and lengthy process for improvements relating to state highways. Any time a city wants to improve a local street passing over the freeway, Caltrans gets involved as the lead agency. Hollstein said the city labored through countless meetings to plan the project with Caltrans. Preparing the plans took long enough but then there was the matter of funding.

"There was a two- or three-year delay because Caltrans ran out of money for the right of way," said Hollstein. "That boosted the cost of the project as prices of land went up significantly."

The project Initiation Document was submitted in 1999 and was finally included in the 2001 Regional Transportation Plan as adopted by StanCOG, the Stanislaus Council of Governments.

Because of inflation that occurred between delays, the interchange ended up costing the taxpayers more than if the project had been done originally, he said.

"It was over-budget from what we started with at the very beginning," said Hollstein.

By the time the project went out to bid in 2008, the engineer's estimate pegged the project at $22.8 million. Because business was slow for contractors, the lowest bid came in from Nehemiah Construction of Benecia at $16.4 million, or $2 million under the engineer's estimate. Right of way and other costs brought the project cost to a total of $26 million.

Hollstein said as Ceres grew in population, the city wanted to widen Whitmore Avenue to improve the flow of traffic.

"The old overpass was too steep, so it had visibility problems, and was too narrow," commented Hollstein.

The project involved building a new independent overcrossing that had less of an incline, removal of the old bridge, and construction of a second new overcrossing structure.

The four lanes between Central Avenue and Blaker Road should eliminate serious rush-hour bottlenecking of traffic. The new overpass includes safer sidewalks on both north and south shoulders.

Local streets on both sides of Highway 99 are now reconfigured that vastly alters how traffic moves around Ceres High School.

West of Highway 99, a new connector will be added to allow for southbound turns to connect to Railroad Avenue. It replaces a current sharp right hair-pin turn that could not be negotiated by trucks needing to access Railroad Avenue businesses and industries.

East of the freeway, a new configuration eliminated the old grade-level northbound onramp that forced cars to make a sharp turn and rapid acceleration to merge onto 99. A new sloped onramp for northbound 99 traffic now allows cars to reach freeway speed before entering the freeway.

A new connection has been constructed to link Whitmore and Central via a frontage road that cuts between Lazy Wheels Mobilehome Park and the Ceres Farm Labor Camp.

Left to be decided are the uses for the now vacant properties across from Ceres High School. It's believed that Caltrans will sell off the land near the mobilehome park for commercial uses. Possible uses for the "triangle" island west of Ceres High School is a park or parking lot.