There are too many issues surrounding the Caltrans plan to widen Highway 99 from Ashlan Avenue in Fresno to Avenue 7 in Madera County to cover in just one blog post. So, this will be the first in a series of posts that will document the Island Park Six-Lane Project and offer my views on the substantial negative impacts this project will have on our nonprofit 501(c)3 Fresno Aquarium project and my beloved hometown since 1979…
When the Council of Fresno County Governments (COG) adopted the Highway 99 Beautification Master Plan in 2000, the northern and southern Major Gateways to Fresno County along Highway 99 were designated as two of the most important elements in the Master Plan. The Major Gateways, located at the County borders, would “set the tone for the remainder of the enhancements,” said the document created by RRM Design Group, by being “architecturally significant in scale, materials, colors and detail.”
In cooperation with Fresno County officials and the Association for the Beautification of Highway 99, Aquarius Aquarium Institute agreed to grant an easement on its future Aquarium property so the northern Major Gateway Monument sign shown above could be constructed facing the Freeway.
You may be asking – how could mere beautification of a highway corridor represent an economic benefit to a community? Well, the consensus of the Association’s members when they formulated their Master Plan was that the lack of visual appeal along Highway 99 had been effectively discouraging economic development in our region for years. This broad coalition of area business, political, economic development and educational leaders passionately believed that by showing an effort to invest in our community’s image and aesthetic character, they would be encouraging existing businesses to also invest in the area and attract new economic interests as well. Caltrans was listed as a possible funding resource in the adopted Master Plan.
Indeed, Caltrans officials at that time were deeply involved in the process and, on December 10, 2003, actually provided a huge, shiny Caltrans tractor truck and flatbed trailer draped with red, white and blue bunting to serve as a grand stage for the sign’s official groundbreaking. From atop the Caltrans big rig parked right on the spot where our Aquarium building is to be built, Fresno County Supervisors, City of Fresno elected officials and other distinguished guests made inspiring speeches over loudspeakers to the assembled crowd about all the economic benefits that would most certainly come to both the City and County of Fresno as a result of the full implementation of the Highway 99 Beautification Master Plan. How wonderful it was that we were making our section of 99 a shining example for the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, they said to enthusiastic applause and the television cameras. I know all of this because my wife, Aletha, and I were present to hear the dignitaries speak so proudly about what a big deal this new Major Gateway area was for the promotion of Fresno County as an economic powerhouse. Even the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce-endorsed message on the Gateway Monument was audacious: Welcome to Fresno County – California’s New Frontier.
But only six-and-a-half years later, right after Fresno County’s first-ever Major Gateway Monument sign had celebrated its fifth anniversary of completion, the Beautification Master Plan is all but forgotten in Caltrans’ plans for rebuilding the Freeway bridge over the San Joaquin River. The only “plan” Caltrans has shown publicly has orange marker lines depicting the highway swinging out to the west – encroaching forty or fifty feet onto our County, City and LAFCo-approved future Aquarium property, bisecting our future Oceanarium and right through our one and only existing Welcome to Fresno County Major Gateway Monument sign. The large Eucalyptus trees now masking the southbound Herndon Avenue exit overcrossing to Golden State Blvd. just to the south of the Major Gateway are also slated for destruction.
Caltrans position in both its Initial Study/Environmental Assessment and the separate “Technical Studies” is that this massive $64.1 million major construction project will have no significant impacts on our community and therefore does not require preparation of a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR). But their IS/EA and Technical Studies contain only passing reference to our COG-adopted Highway 99 Beautification Master Plan and make no acknowledgment whatsoever of the importance of the northern Major Gateway Monument area to the Master Plan’s ultimate success. There is no study on the economic impact of planting nothing more than grasses on the new Freeway shoulder and berm at the designated Major Gateway entrance to both the City and County of Fresno nor any analysis of the economic impact of losing our brand-new Gateway Monument Sign local volunteers worked so hard to create.
Next blog post coming soon: Will Caltrans get away with not performing a Traffic Impact Study on its $64.1 million capacity-enhancing Project? (even though state law requires many much smaller private-sector and local projects to do so routinely)