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Interchange planning still ongoing
• Service & Mitchell roads
service road overpass
Plans call for the heavily used Service Road overpass to be demolished and reconfigured into a diverging diamond interchange. - photo by Jeff Benziger

The last time the Ceres City Council took action on advancing the Mitchell/Service Highway 99 interchange was one year ago.

Where is the project today? In a nutshell, still in the planning stages. But news of the state’s prediction of a $54 billion budget shortfall for the 2020-21 fiscal year has officials worrying about the prospects for funding.

The council took action in May 2019 to formally request Caltrans to approve creating a new connection between Highway 99 at Service Road. Caltrans signed onto connect the planned interchange at Service Road to the state freeway.

Currently the project is in its plans, specifications and estimates (PS&E) stage – work being performed by Nolte Associates (now NV5). The firm has been involved with the project from its inception. The focus of the work is to protect all the ultimate right-of-way and best position the city to pursue the funding necessary to construct the project.

The PS&E should be completed in June at a cost of $3.89 million. Funds for the design work are coming from Measure L, the half-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2016.

Approximately $7 million have been spent to get the project to the current status.

“The city needs to assess where we’re at and budgeting for the remaining portions of work,” said City Engineer Daniel Padilla.

The Stanislaus Council of Governments, or StanCOG, committed to use $30.74 million of Measure L tax revenue on the Ceres interchange. More funding is expected from SB 1, the state’s gas tax increase and car registration fee hike that survived a repeal effort in November 2018. The entire project is expected to cost somewhere in the area of $95 million.

Padilla said the city has the option of a design-build procurement and will have to see how to fund the remaining 35 percent of plans.

“I know we don’t have money to construct the project so we have to go after multiple grants,” said Padilla. He added both federal and state funding sources could be tapped. “I need to assess where we’re at finally and how we’re going to get this project funded.”

He anticipates bringing the matter to the council sometime in the near future to have them weigh in on direction. Meanwhile, as the new city engineer Padilla said he needs to familiarize himself with the project since it was former City Manager Toby Wells who had been the lead on the project before he left last month for the city of Turlock.

The new interchange design would eliminate the way motorists exit southbound 99 at Mitchell Road. The southbound Mitchell Road on-ramp and Highway 99 off-ramps cross each other, so drivers coming off the freeway must stop and wait for a break in southbound Mitchell Road traffic headed toward the on-ramp. Under the diverging diamond design, the only freeway access at Mitchell Road to remain would be the southbound on-ramp and the northbound freeway on-ramp.

The interchange at Service Road will include a diverging diamond design, which is well explained in several YouTube videos. 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 circulation pattern to allow for less traffic conflicts, better and increased traffic flow and better access to the freeway.

California currently has no diverging diamond interchanges but many states have found they work well and are safer.

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.

The design calls for the Brickit Court industrial area to be accessible by Don Pedro Road and not the current route via El Camino Avenue.