With plans under way to improve the Highway 99 interchanges at Kiernan and Pelandale avenues, transportation leaders are turning attention to Stanislaus County's northernmost junction at Salida's Hammett Road.
A public hearing tonight will give people their say on a $40 million upgrade that could have huge implications if leaders decide to link the Hammett interchange with the future North County Corridor.
That possibility could escalate the proposed upgrade, which previously drew little controversy, into a battle involving people who prefer that a future expressway north of Modesto hook up with Highway 99 at Kiernan.
"Everyone wants Kiernan to work for the North County Corridor," said Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow, who represents the Salida area. "We don't need to spend a ton of money up north (at Hammett)."
That's a big change from a few years ago, when county leaders envisioned a commercial development larger than Vintage Faire Mall just east of the rural interchange.
Withrow's predecessor, former Supervisor Jeff Grover, helped push the Salida Community Plan adopted in 2007. It calls for 4,470 new houses and 27,000 jobs, perhaps positioning Salida the county's largest unincorporated town, with about 13,000 people for cityhood.
The recession made the plan irrelevant, but by law, it can't be changed for 25 years without a vote of the people.
Recently, Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh announced a desire to annex the town; the city and county have embarked on a study of the idea.
Withrow, elected two years ago, doesn't like the Salida Community Plan and its vision linking the Hammett interchange with the North County Corridor, a 26-mile expressway skirting Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale before meeting Highway 108 east of Oakdale.
The future expressway's most vocal critics urge leaders to beef up Kiernan, saying that could satisfy traffic-reducing goals of the North County Corridor near Modesto rather than chewing through farmland. Transportation officials say relocating homes and businesses along a widened Kiernan could prove too expensive but agreed to study the idea.
Meanwhile, plans roll on to revamp other interchanges in the north county.
If state bond money comes through, crews could begin in December a $42.9 million remake of the Pelandale junction, replacing its three-lane span with a seven-lane crossing.
And county leaders are getting close to a $38 million upgrade of the Kiernan interchange just up the road; eventually, crews would build extra freeway lanes between the two.
Economy the deciding factor
Tonight, county and state officials hope to hear opinions on the Hammett project, even though it could not happen until the economy rebounds and construction gears up. Some costs would be paid with fees collected from developers.
"We want to be ready for the future so we can move quickly," said Matt Machado, public works director for the county, which has spent $1 million on designs. Dropping the Hammett project and starting over later would be "a real misuse of resources," he said.
Tonight's town-hall-style meeting focuses on a recent draft environmental study concluding that the Hammett project would not have a significant impact on people, farms or nature.
Officials prefer a configuration replacing the two-lane span with a six-lane crossing and new ramps with lanes reserved for high-occupancy vehicles such as buses and car pools.
Machado acknowledged that the Hammett interchange rarely backs up these days. But the study says eventual Salida growth could produce "severe congestion and gridlock" without improvements, perhaps resulting in delays of up to 20 minutes by 2035.
The project would add six stormwater basins and the government would acquire 15 acres of farmland, the study says. The path to a pedestrian-bicycle bridge over the Stanislaus River, owned and maintained by Ripon, would be shifted 200 feet to the east.
Tonight's hearing starts at 6 at the Salida library branch, 4835 Sisk Road, with a brief presentation scheduled at 6:30. Comments will be recorded, or people can send input by Aug. 15 to the California Department of Transportation, 855 M St., Suite 200, Fresno 93721, or to email@example.com.
For more information, go to www.dot.ca.gov/dist10.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.