Often the subjects of this column are derived not from some unusual event or circumstance, but rather from questions that pop into people’s minds during everyday activities such as their commute to work or a jaunt through their neighborhood park.
This week, the questions came from one of my editors, who noticed a seemingly inexplicable jump in the speed limit on McHenry Avenue, and a Village I resident who questioned a cellphone tower being installed at Ustach Park.
I used to commute on McHenry, too, when I lived in an apartment in north Modesto. It was the most direct route to work but also the most frustrating; congested, full of traffic lights and vehicles abruptly stopping to turn into businesses – never mind the bicyclists riding the wrong way or pedestrians darting out in front of you.
It’s a pretty slow, stop-and-go drive, so I was surprised when my editor told me there is a portion of south McHenry where the speed limit increases by 10 mph for just half a mile and then drops back down.
Sure enough, the speed limit on McHenry is 30 mph in the 2.5-mile stretch from Needham Street to Rumble Road, except between Baker Way and Mensinger Avenue, where it jumps to 40 mph.
The number of lanes doesn’t increase, the road doesn’t widen, and just like the 30 mph zones to the north and south, there are sidewalks on both sides and a turn lane in the middle.
In fact, the speed limit on McHenry doesn’t get back into the 40s until you’re out of the city altogether, north of Claribel Road.
I called Modesto’s traffic division, which referred me to the California Department of Transportation for answers because McHenry is a state highway.
Both departments had the same answers, though, because both use the 85th percentile rule when determining speed limits.
That rule dictates that the speed limit should be set at or below the pace at which 85 percent of the cars are traveling, according to Caltrans spokesman Rick Estrada.
So the last time a traffic survey was completed in that area, vehicles sped up in that half-mile section. Why? Estrada said surveyors wouldn’t speculate.
The surveys are done every seven years and that stretch became 40 mph in 2012, when it increased from 35 mph.
The theory of the 85th percentile rule is that 85 percent of drivers are reasonable and prudent, so the limit should be set in accordance with the free flow of traffic.
Here’s another percentage to consider if you live in Village I: 90. That’s the portion of rent money the Village One Community Facilities District will get from Verizon Wireless, which is installing a cellphone tower in Ustach Park.
That’s some consolation for resident Debbie Johnson, but she wonders why the obtrusive structure must be front and center in the park and not off to the side, like closer to the empty field west of the park.
The base of the tower is centered in a grouping of trees just off Hillglen Drive.
“As the trees get older they will screen it more, and the tower (which hasn’t yet been erected) is what they call a monopine design, so it is meant to blend in with existing evergreen trees,” said Parks Planning and Development Manager Loren Holt.
Verizon’s plans had to be approved by the parks department before going up for a vote by the city Planning Commission and finally the City Council in July.
Verizon will pay the city $1,200 a month for its rent of the place and an additional $400 a month for any additional cellphone provider that rents space on the tower.
Money paid to the Village I Community Facilities District goes toward public improvements in the neighborhood, such as to parks, roads and storm drains.
The other 10 percent of the rent will pay for administrative costs to cover for the operations and management of the contract with Verizon, according to Holt.
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