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Temporary halt for interchange
A collective community groan will be heard at this bit of news: Construction on the Whitmore/ Highway 99 interchange will be suspended for up to five months beginning later this month as the contractor pursues two other road projects in El Dorado County.

"They are way ahead of schedule and so they have the option of disappearing for several months and coming back to complete the project on time and there's nothing we can do," said a disappointed Ceres City Engineer Glenn Gebhardt.

Nehemiah Construction of Benecia will be pulling its crew and equipment at the end of the month to work on the widening Highway 50 in El Dorado County - a project which must be completed by the end of October - and a Highway 99 bridge project near the Feather River.

"We're way ahead of the schedule in Ceres so we decided to take our resources and use them on some jobs that are more time-sensitive," said Jay Zolmer, Nehemiah's project manager. "We're about 80 percent done and the last update is we've got maybe 40 percent of the time remaining for the contract date."

Zolmer predicted that his company won't be back on the Ceres job until November as the winter weather settles in. "It's hard to work from November to April. We'll be in the rainy season. I don't see the (Ceres) job getting done until the July time frame next year."

Zolmer explained that the economy hit the construction industry and his company hard and survival requires shifting remaining workers around.

"With the downturn in the economy we downsized considerably. We had to lay off 100 people. We try to manage our crew to keep people busy and working. Our reputation is we saved the state $2 million on the bid, we're good and we're fast but the problem is our business is so bare boned right now... it's just really tough right now. We have to try balance and see how can we be the most efficient."

In a more robust economy, said Zolmer, Nehemiah would be able to rent equipment and have enough crewmen to work simultaneously on projects. But he commented that the state could usher projects toward a faster completion by paying "extra money."

"We did save them $2 million and we cannot afford to accelerate by ourselves. There's no money in there."

The state's Ceres contract with Nehemiah Construction calls for the project to be finished by July 2011 and there is no financial incentive to finish the Ceres project early.

Gebhardt said some people are already unhappy about the project disrupting life but the news will be cause for more grumbling. The Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and the Chevron station at Whitmore Avenue west of Central Avenue are among those most affected.

"They're unimpressed in the truest sense," said Gebhardt. "They're taking a big hit. It's hard to get there. You don't have the off-ramp in place. They're right in the middle of Ground Zero. They're the people dealing with the congestion. But there's nothing we can do about it. There's nothing Caltrans can do about it."

Zolmer apologized for the impact to businesses.

City Hall had speculated that, until now, work was occurring so rapidly that the project may have been finished by the end of summer or fall. Zolmer confirmed that the job could be completed by this September if things were different.

Nehemiah is wrapping up on the abutments for the new bridge before heading north. The center supports for the new bridge are complete and standing between the northbound and southbound median.

"We'll have the abutments done, per se, and ... we want to leave when it's fairly clean," said Zolmer. "What you see now isn't going to change much."

Meanwhile, motorists have been patiently dealing with maneuvering around the local roads affected by the project. Perhaps the greatest inconvenience has been in the back-up of traffic for westbound Whitmore Avenue at Central Avenue. Caltrans employees have been tinkering almost weekly with the timing of signal lights to minimize congestion but only so much can be done.

"From what I've seen it's a lot better than it was," commented Gebhardt. "For a while they focussed time on the main street, cleared it out, then you had back-ups on Central forever. So they're trying to balance."

Part of the bottleneck is due to two lanes narrowing to one east of the overpass. Drivers in the right lane for westbound Central Avenue used to have the option of going straight but are now forced to turn right. Gebhardt said most have learned to deal with it.

With the first new overpass structure complete and in operation, the project is currently in its second big phase. With the old narrow 1965 overpass dismantled, a new overpass - a twin to the one just built - is going up. Bull dozers have been sculpting the ground just west of the KFC to make way for a new onramp which will loop off from the lanes of eastbound Whitmore Avenue. The design of the old northbound onramp was deficient as its sharp turn didn't allow cars for rapid acceleration onto Highway 99.

One of the last things to take place will be work west of Highway 99. A new connection is being added to allow for southbound turns onto Railroad Avenue. It replaces the right sharp hair-pin turn that could not be navigated by trucks needing to access businesses and industries on Railroad Avenue near the cemetery.

The city has speculated that the $16.4 million Ceres project is not one of Nehemiah's more lucrative adventures. The bid was more competitive at a time in which contractor were hungry for work.