Caltrans claims expanded Highway 99 Freeway will have no impact on City of Fresno surface streets

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. This is the second 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 Caltrans built Freeway 41 through the heart of Fresno in the 1980s and 90s, they assured us that they had studied all aspects of that project and that surface street congestion would be mitigated by construction of the Freeway. As one who travels this route on business nearly every day, I can say without question that Freeway 41 has made business and personal travel through the metropolitan area much easier. However, soon after the Freeway opened to motorists, flaws in Caltrans’ design of the four northbound offramps at Shaw, Bullard, Herndon, and Friant as well as the inability of City of Fresno surface streets to handle the new traffic flows exiting from the Freeway became quickly apparent.

Many Fresnans will remember that the first Freeway 41 section was completed in the mid-80s and terminated at Bullard Avenue and how we all looked forward to the day when the gridlock that backed up on our new Freeway all the way south to Shaw Avenue during each weekday’s rush hour would be eased by the opening of the final segment. As soon as we were able to exit at Herndon and Friant, we thought, all would be well. Also, by reconnecting the Freeway to the highway again along a broad curve just before it crossed the San Joaquin River into Madera County, all northbound traffic would flow smoothly northward toward Yosemite National Park.

But soon after the remaining Freeway section was “completed,” many were surprised to see the backups on Bullard were now transferred north to Herndon and especially Friant. It became so bad, in fact, that Caltrans had to scramble to fix what was a very dangerous situation vividly illustrated on the Freeway’s new pavement by numerous long black skid marks and by many dramatic vehicle accidents on the local nightly news. Years after the low-capacity, poorly-designed Friant offramp was opened, and after millions more taxpayer dollars were spent to re-engineer and acquire additional right-of-way from adjacent property owners, Caltrans finally added not one, but two more lanes onto the Freeway shoulder (see photo above) and increased the Friant offramp’s original two lanes to five!

I share the preceding local history to illustrate how Caltrans’ lack of planning has not only caused every day Fresno citizens the inconvenience of being stuck in gridlock, but also placed motorists in extremely dangerous traffic situations for many years.

Now, in the case of Caltrans plan to widen Highway 99 from 4 lanes to 6 lanes from Ashlan to Herndon and then from Herndon to Avenue 7 in Madera (section map shown above), a very similar situation is developing. In seeking to rush this massive project through the regulatory process and deliver it on time and on budget, Caltrans simply left out a Traffic Impact Study for City of Fresno surface streets. Their Initial Study/Environmental Assessment simply states, without any supporting documentation whatsoever, that “No local roads within the City of Fresno or Madera County would be affected. No work would be done on the Grantland undercrossing, the Herndon overcrossing, or the Avenue 7 overcrossing. These structures are non-standard and have been addressed with a design exception.”

So, what exactly is a design exception? Caltrans normally expects new facilities to be constructed using full design standards, but when reconstructing existing facilities, especially in urban areas, an Exception to Design Standards may be approved by the Chief, Division of Design, at the district/region level as long as sound engineering judgment can be documented in determining the justification for the nonstandard feature. This is how Caltrans can legally get away with not widening the Freeway 99/Grantland undercrossing at Herndon, not widening or lengthening the northbound Herndon or southbound Grantland offramps and not participate with the City of Fresno in building a grade separation (underpass) at the Union Pacific Railroad crossing just east of the Herndon/99 interchange to the detriment of City of Fresno motorists who will be trying to get to and from Caltrans’ brand-new increased-capacity Freeway. Sound familiar?

Of course, had Caltrans conducted a full EIR (Environmental Impact Report) for the Island Park Six-Lane Project instead of their proposed MND/FONSI (Mitigated Negative Declaration/Finding Of No Significant Impacts), these issues may have been discovered.

When I think of all the development projects in our community being required to conduct EIRs and Traffic Impact Studies almost routinely by our local planning departments, Caltrans’ flagrant refusal to do the same for their own $64.1 million growth-inducing, capacity-enhancing Project seems that much more arrogant and condescending to those of us in the motoring public who sit in gridlock wondering why our state and federal government agencies continue to fail to address such a basic issue as good local roads and quality Freeway design that matter so much to our daily quality of life.

Next blog post coming soon: Caltrans fails to study constituents of Freeway surface runoff from its proposed new bridges over the San Joaquin River Restoration and whether or not the new fenced retention basins or bioswales they are planning to build directly adjacent to the San Joaquin River to catch this runoff could potentially release these contaminants into the path of future spawning Chinook salmon or smolts heading back out to sea.