Connections to 99 scheduled to improve

CERES -- Straddling Highway 99 is an advantage, but it also causes headaches for city planners, commuters, residents and visitors.

Even without traffic congestion, getting on and off the highway in Ceres can be complicated, with its mazelike series of frontage roads, overpasses and exits.

In some cases, bridges passing over the six-lane 99 aren't connected to the onramps and offramps. For example, the southbound exit that signals Whitmore Avenue is a few hundred yards south of Whitmore and spits drivers out at El Camino Avenue. They then have to head north to reach Whitmore and its overpass.

As the city tries to position itself with Turlock and Modesto as an attractive place to set up business and to shop, officials recognize the need to get people on and off Highway 99 hassle-free.

More than just Ceres residents contribute to the overwhelming traffic. Three factors combine to make renovations necessary: hundreds more people each year who call Ceres home; trucks that haul their loads to outlying areas and industrial parks; and people who live in Hughson, east Modesto and Waterford who use Ceres thoroughfares to get to their destinations.

Two of Ceres' three Highway 99 exits will get face-lifts over the next decade -- Whitmore Avenue and Service-Mitchell roads.

"Both projects are highly complex, but they have to be done," City Manager Brad Kilger said. Both remodels accommodate planned growth in Ceres for the next 50 years.

Working with the California Department of Transportation, city officials hope to have the Whitmore Avenue overpass completed by December 2010. Planning started in 2001 and construction is expected to begin by the middle of this year.

"Whitmore is a disaster," Mayor Anthony Cannella said.

The new exit will add a southbound lane on the west side of 99 that more efficiently filters traffic off Whitmore onto frontage road Railroad Avenue. It clears up congestion on the east side of 99 by moving a series of short streets near Whitmore and 99 to the north and east, away from the highway.

The new overpass will accommodate the planned widening of Highway 99 from six to eight lanes. It will cost about $42.5 million, with the majority of funding coming from Caltrans, city officials said.

The Service-Mitchell roads interchange is a few more years away, partially because it's a much larger project than Whitmore and calls for the minor shifting to the north of Highway 99. The work will be done in two phases. Service Road enhancements, with a $83 million price tag, will be first. Officials had no cost estimate for the second phase, Mitchell Road.

Service-Mitchell is undergoing design and environmental reviews, with construction planned to start in mid-2011 and finish in late 2014, according to a preliminary timeline.

Service Road will get its own northbound and southbound onramp and offramp and make the Mitchell ramps easier to navigate. The reworked ramps will allow access to the west side of Ceres from Highway 99 at both roads.

Service-Mitchell is the more important of updates because of a planned commercial center on the south end of Ceres and thousands of proposed new homes on the south and west sides of town.

The Whitmore and ServiceMitchell projects still need land, either from purchases or eminent domain, officials said. In the meantime, city staff members are searching for ways to fund the city's share of the projects.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.