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December 1, 2013

Bee Investigator: Newly paved roads in Ceres torn up because of utility work

People want to know why newly paved roads often are torn up again. The answer is the utility companies don’t always know they will have work to do in time to coordinate with other roadwork.

I’m sure you’re still all stuffed like turkeys from the Thanksgiving weekend, so we won’t serve up anything too heavy today.

Several folks over the past 10 months have wanted to know why a road is repaved, only to be ripped up within a few months or a couple of years. Can’t cities get those utility folks to plan ahead, they ask?

Such is the case with Whitmore Avenue east of Highway 99 in Ceres. The road was repaved – or, to be technically correct, overlayed – two years ago. Since summer, the lanes have been reduced and traffic has poked along as PG&E has torn up lanes to replace a high-pressure gas line. It’s a 10-mile, $50 million project that runs from Whitmore in Ceres to Sante Fe to the east, then south on Geer Road to Christofferson in Turlock.

The months-long project is scheduled to be mostly finished in a few weeks, although weather may cause the final resurfacing to be delayed. When complete, it should look as smooth as it did when it was overlayed in 2011. But in the meantime, cars are bouncing over thick metal plates and forced to drive in just one lane in each direction in some spots. Wouldn’t it have been better to do this work first before the new asphalt was put in place?

“Obviously, we try to coordinate that,” said Toby Wells, deputy city manager and engineer for Ceres. “We sent out notices to all the utilities, but they (PG&E) didn’t know about this at that time. So we had no way of knowing.”

The utility company will have to repave the street to get it close to its original condition, he added. But when possible, the city likes to coordinate these projects in advance.

For example, Wells said, the city has plans in 2015 to widen and improve the intersection at Whitmore and Morgan Road on the west side of Highway 99. PG&E will move its gas equipment along that area in 2014, so it will be done by the time the city’s project moves forward.

Nicole Liebelt, spokeswoman for PG&E, said the Whitmore project “is part of our Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan” to monitor, test and modernize its 70,000 miles of gas transmission lines. The 10-plus miles in the local project replaced the old gas transmission pipeline.

She said some paving is still in the works, but the new pipeline has been completed and is operational.

“With a project of this size and scope, there was a good deal of planning, engineering, permitting and communicating that needed to take place prior to conducting the work,” she said. “We worked to communicate early on to local residents, schools and the community so they knew what work we were doing, how long it would last and that there may be traffic impacts while we safely conducted this work.”

It seems a lot of folks didn’t get the message ... until they were waiting for traffic to move along the street.

The Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan began in 2011 in response to the deadly gas line explosion in San Bruno, which killed eight people, injured others and destroyed 38 homes. The company announced in September that it would pay $565 million in legal settlements and other claims stemming from the explosion. That doesn’t include the multibillion-dollar fine proposed by the state.

Spending $50 million to replace aging, potentially explosive lines sounds pretty prudent in terms of lives saved and billions of dollars in fines. It’s just too bad the street — and others like it in the five-county area — has to be torn up twice.

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