Trucking company owner William Panella tells his drivers to avoid Highway 132.
That advice would seem strange to someone looking at a map showing the ancient east-west route cleanly bisecting Stanislaus County with a nice, straight shot toward the Bay Area.
But anyone who has headed west on Highway 132 from anywhere east of Modesto knows about the nonsensical tangle downtown, requiring zigs and zags and plenty of stops that try a driver's patience.
Transportation planners have been talking about undoing the tangle for half the life of Ceres' B. Panella Drayage Co., established in 1912. Its current owner isn't holding his breath, but could alter his truckers' routes, he said Friday, if the latest plan for smooth sailing on Highway 132 comes through.
"This is a significantly huge project," said Vince Harris, director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments, the transportation planning agency sponsoring the ambitious, long-awaited plan.
The $295 million proposal would create a four-lane expressway skirting the heart of Modesto, from Beard Industrial Tract to a point about three miles west of town, with minimal stops in between. Completion would be many years away even if everything went perfectly, which it seldom does with road projects.
Homes and businesses along the route, particularly those on Fifth, Sixth and D streets downtown, could be displaced or lose their yards or parking lots. The trade-off is a smoother flow, supporters say.
"It's not going to be perfect and pleasing to everyone," said Joy Madison, president of the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and a member of the committee studying the project. "But in the long run, it's for a stronger community."
The broader community includes Coulterville, the highway's east terminus, as well as La Grange, Waterford and Empire. It's hard to envision access to Don Pedro, McClure, Turlock and Modesto reservoirs without Highway 132, not to mention one path to Yosemite National Park.
The other end leads through Vernalis to Interstate 580 and the Bay Area.
Highway 132 "is a vital link through the central valley," consultants with planning firm Jacobs Carter Burgess wrote in the new report.
Many troubled segments
Working with StanCOG, Modesto, Stanislaus County and the California Department of Transportation, the firm considered several previous studies focusing on various troubled segments of Highway 132. Widening the route east of downtown, where it's known as Yosemite Boulevard, is expected to go forward this summer independent of the expressway west of downtown, whose right of way state officials acquired decades ago.
The new comprehensive report is called the "State Route 132 East-West Connectivity Project" for its vision of bringing the two legs together in a clean downtown link, with new ramps to the larger, more-traveled Highway 99.
Harris and consultants will unveil the proposal Tuesday at a StanCOG policy board meeting.
If two-thirds of voters throughout Stanislaus County approve a half-cent sales tax increase in November, proceeds could provide $86 million for Highway 132 improvements. "StanCOG should be able to lev-erage at least another $40 million using this funding," the report states.
The agencies should begin "a program of access management by limiting or eliminating access to streets along the corridor," including nine blocks on Fifth and Sixth streets.
Homes and businesses on Fifth, Sixth and D streets could hamper efforts to widen those routes. "Adding more lanes may not be a solution," the report reads, "and a constrained design approach should be considered."
The agencies favor a new roundabout at the critical three-road intersection of Yosemite Boulevard and 14th and D streets.
A previous freight study found that trips from the jobs-rich Beard tract to Highway 99 take 10 minutes longer than they should.
The new expressway would decrease traffic on some roads but cause more on others. Overall, delays should go down only 3 percent.
Officials have secured more than $14 million for the expressway west of Modesto, which would run south of Kansas Avenue.
Another study exploring alternative alignments, as required by California environmental law, would require about one year, and related reports would stretch another three years. Buying property in the way and design could take three years for each of four project phases, plus three years more of construction for each phase.
On the Net: www.sr132connectivity.org.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.