Bee Investigator: Hey, Caltrans, how about a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Modesto?

03/23/2014 5:56 PM

03/23/2014 10:17 PM

Lela Seefeldt of Modesto wants to know why Highway 99 in Stanislaus County has some particularly ugly barriers and a lack of landscaping.

“Why is the stretch of Highway 99 between Ceres and Salida less beautiful than almost anywhere else on the highway?” she asked. “Why do we have a wood wall covered with ivy, a chain-link fence with broken slats and green sticks on top of the center lane barriers, especially between Briggsmore and Standiford? If you go toward the Bay Area or Sacramento, there are beautiful block walls and more ornate, decorated areas, but here? What does it take for Caltrans to treat Modesto with R-E-S-P-E-C-T?”

Aretha Franklin’s signature 1967 hit aside, she’s right, of course. And it’s not just the capital city or upscale Bay communities that rate nicer highways. Even Fresno seems to have garnered more dollars for nicer barriers. Just look there at Highway 41, for example, with its beautiful landscaping and creatively textured overpasses. Closer to home, Ripon has a nicely landscaped welcome to its city at the Jack Tone Road exit. Of course, the city and a half-cent transportation tax in San Joaquin County helped fund that in partnership with the California Department of Transportation before the financial collapse.

And money, as always, is at the heart of the issue.

The wood wall that Lela refers to was built as a sound barrier in the 1970s as part of the Highway Village subdivision, said Chantel Miller, public affairs chief for Caltrans’ District 10. She added that there are two situations that could generate a nicer or better sound wall:

• “One would be if a developer wanted to make improvements to an area or establish a new development. If this happened, the developer could be required through their design phase to mitigate for sound, which may include a sound wall or other noise deterrents.”

That’s not likely to happen, since the area is already developed.

• “The second would be if improvements were being developed for the highway, such as adding lanes. As part of the environmental analysis of the project, Caltrans would conduct a noise study as required by the Federal Highway Administration, the National Environmental Protection Act and the California Environmental Quality Act. If it was determined that a sound wall was warranted, then it would be considered for incorporation in the final design of the project.”

That’s a lot of studies, and also a highly unlikely scenario. I can’t see Caltrans deciding to add more lanes to that part of the highway anytime soon, can you?

On the bright side, Miller said three landscaping projects recently were completed in the Modesto area. “One of these projects was made possible due to Proposition 1B funding. Caltrans and its partners look for opportunities to fund landscaping projects in all communities.”

Proposition 1B was the $19.9 billion state bond for highway, street and transit improvements California voters approved in 2006.

I guess the opportunities are somehow greater in other places, eh?

Miller added, “Our Adopt-A-Highway program is another way concerned citizens can help their communities. In addition to litter removal, groups can sign up to help plant and establish trees and wildflowers, remove graffiti and control vegetation.” More information is available at www.adopt-a-highway.dot.ca.gov.

So we can’t look forward to impending replacements on the highway median or side barriers, but you can perhaps make them look less ratty if you want to invest your time and money in planting some trees, shrubs or flowers ... getting Caltrans’ approval first, of course.

And if you’re curious about Highway Village, here’s what I found out about it.

Highway Village is a 320-house subdivision built in the 1950s and early ’60s off Sisk Road between present-day Heritage Ford and Toys R Us. At the time it was developed, it was considered a rural area of Modesto. It was annexed into Modesto in 1975, about the time the wooden sound wall went up.

It’s never been a high-priority section for Caltrans, and the wall was long considered an eyesore along the freeway.

In 2001, local volunteers and organizations painted and landscaped the wall. But it became an eyesore again in October 2002, when a car veered into the wall, taking out a large section. According to a 2004 editorial in The Modesto Bee, it took “17 months of haranguing, cajoling, arm-twisting and finger-wagging by community activists, city councilmen and state politicians to put Caltrans in motion (to fix it). It was only a hole – what does it take to nail up a few sheets of plywood?”

The nearby slatted fence was also replaced, but a quick drive-by a decade later reveals that many of the slats are broken or missing again.

Sigh. I guess it’s better than the old car dump that greets visitors to the southern part of the city. But I’m with Lela on this one, and would love to see a collaboration among local organizations, businesses, city and county governments and Caltrans to improve our presence along Highway 99. The late Pete Bakker provided leadership in this area in the past; who will step up to coordinate it again? Maybe you?

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