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City land swap OKd for infrastructure
Right-of-way being secured for new interchange design
This map shows the green shaded area south of Service Road next to Highway 99 that is needed for a future northbound offramp and the diverging diamond interchange. The city is exchanging other properties for it. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Because a proposed freeway interchange project design requires a bigger bite into the 16.5-acre chunk of undeveloped commercial land east of Highway 99, the Ceres City Council has approved a trade of three acres at the southwest corner of Service and Mitchell for a strip of right-of-way.

The land swap deal was approved on Jan. 26.

The city purchased a three-acre property at the southwest corner of Service and Mitchell roads in 2014. City Manager Toby Wells proposed giving $719,678 worth of land to Ceres Gateway Center LLC and Genesis Family Enterprises Inc. in exchange for 3.31 acres of land along the freeway. The strip of land is needed, said Wells, to accommodate an off-ramp for northbound freeway traffic to transition onto the future interchange at Service Road.
The city is planning with Caltrans to build a unique $125 million interchange with what is called a "diverging diamond" design. No city in California has the unique "diverging diamond" road design.

The interchange design - which may not develop until 2020 or later - 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.

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 how motorists get off southbound 99 at Mitchell Road. Currently motorists have to stop at the end of the off-ramp and wait for clearance of southbound on-ramp traffic coming from the left. The only freeway access at Mitchell to remain would be the southbound on-ramp and the northbound freeway on-ramp.

In a typical overcrossing, a vehicle travelling westbound would be on the north side while eastbound motorists would be traveling on the south side of the overpass. The diverging diamond flips that, mostly because it allows for less traffic conflicts, better and increased traffic flows and better access to the freeway. Proper signage is a "critical component" in keeping motorists from becoming confused about movement, said Wells.

Because the design produces a slower traffic movement - about 25-35 mph - there is less chance for serious accidents.

Only 17 diverging diamond interchanges exist in the nation.

The city has been planning a new Service/Mitchell/99 interchange since 1997. The old design was for couplets - where Mitchell Road was southbound and Moore Road was the northbound movement - but would not work, said Wells. It was scrapped for an expensive 2002 design plan which Caltrans ultimately rejected in 2009. The city dusted off the project in 2011 and consulted Caltrans about better designs.

If the city gets its way, construction would start in five years and be completed in 2023. Wells said the project depends on the passage of a countywide half-cent transportation tax in 2016 which would fund approximately $31 million of the project. The city also can 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 December 2008 the city approved a Gateway Center project for the two-parceled property with hotels and fast food restaurants but it never developed because of the recession. Developers are now planning a new development configuration now that there's a different layout for a potential interchange.
While the interchange design is not an absolute, Wells expects Caltrans to firm up the design approval within the next year.