June 15, 2014

Bee Investigator: Ceres’ Whitmore overpass adds landscaping, textures

When the Whitmore Avenue overpass in Ceres was improved and widened a couple of years ago, it was supposed to have landscaping. But the funds dried up, so Ceres worked with Caltrans to find alternate funds. The result: trees, shrubs and rock details that look appealing.

Several weeks ago, a reader asked why Highway 99 through Stanislaus County, especially Modesto, makes us look like “a poor cousin.”

The California Department of Transportation said it simply doesn’t have the funds to improve the miles of ugly fencing and lack of landscaping along that stretch of the highway.

A lack of funding for landscaping was also an issue with the recently renovated overpass at Whitmore Avenue in Ceres. But it’s looking aesthetically pleasing, thanks to different kinds of rocks, trees and other vegetation. The ongoing improvements are a result of a partnership between the city and Caltrans.

“The landscape is designed to be drought-tolerant and includes eastern redbud, golden rain, deodar cedar and interior live oak trees,” said Caltrans public information officer Rick Estrada. “It also has creeping rosemary, ‘desert carpet’ acacia, New Zealand flax ‘dusky chief’ and ‘sunset’ rockrose shrubs. There will be wildflowers interspersed among the trees and shrubs.”

River rock paving contrasts nicely with a reddish-brown stone in border areas and where plants won’t grow on a steep slope. Crews are finishing up the area, which is scheduled for completion next week.

Estrada said Caltrans is providing 89 percent of the funding, or $704,000, and Ceres is paying the remaining 11 percent, or $86,161.

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said the landscaping was supposed to be part of the construction of the overpass, which was widened to four lanes and extended to allow for future expansion of Highway 99. The $41.9 million project, begun in 2009, also fixed some convoluted entrance ramps and was completed in April 2011.

But then came the news: “Caltrans told us there wasn’t any money left for the landscaping,” Wells said. He wasn’t involved with the project at the time and doesn’t know whether the shortage was because of cost overruns or a tightening of the state budget in the wake of the 2008 financial downturn.

But, he added, Caltrans helped the city obtain a $704,000 grant to do the work. The city’s share is coming “from several sources, but primarily from local transportation funds,” he said.

Ceres “led the design on this,” working with O’Dell Engineering, Wells said.

“We are very pleased with the implementation,” he said. “The other thing that’s very nice about this is it includes three years of maintenance. It will all be established by then, so when it’s taken over by Caltrans and the city, the costs will be much less.”

He explained that after the three-year period, Caltrans will be responsible for the landscaping on the east side of the overpass, while Ceres will take on the west side.

Wells said it’s been a long process – we understand; anything to do with the state or its agencies always seems to be mired in endless reviews, committees, red tape – but he’s pleased with the result.

“They’re putting the finishing touches on,” he said. “It should look really pretty by the end of (this) week.”

What about the other overpasses in Ceres, specifically the busiest ones at Mitchell Road and Hatch Road? Any chance for a little aesthetic improvement for them?

“Both Mitchell and Hatch (overpasses) need to be reconstructed to allow for more traffic,” Wells said. “We are currently in design for Mitchell, but that’s still years out.”

Oh, well. Enjoy the improvements at the Whitmore exchange when you drive by. It’s worth a look.

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