Jeff Jardine

North Western Avenue, in Dodge-the-potholes City

WATERFORD -- For decades, living along North Western Avenue has been, well, the pits.

The pits and chuckholes in the street's pavement represent a car owner's worst nightmare or, depending upon your perspective, a front-end alignment specialist's best friend.

"When I was a kid growing up in Waterford, it was the street we never rode our bikes on," said Waterford Mayor William Broderick-Villa, who now lives in a home on Western Avenue's 400 block. "It's something you knew not to do."

How bad is it? One prom night many years ago, Myrna Stine's car got mired in a mudhole on Western. Her dad had to come pull her out, Broderick-Villa said. She eventually married Phil Stine, who served as Waterford mayor several mayors ago.

The road has continued to deteriorate since. If the chuckholes and pits weren't enough, consider:

The same rain that caused the 1997 New Year's floods throughout the valley sent water creeping into garages along North Western Avenue because there were no storm drains on the street.

In February, resident Bertena McKee fell after her heel caught in a crack in the sidewalk. She broke her already arthritic wrist completely, and it never can heal properly.

In September, with construction under way, the U.S. Postal Service quit delivering to the avenue's mailboxes. Residents must take a long walk or short drive to the post office on Bentley Street to get their mail.

"It was very unsafe," Waterford Postmaster Jeannette Tascon said. "Too many holes."

The four community mailboxes, each with 12 to

16 slots, should be back in place by Tuesday or Wednesday, she said.

As often happens, things have to get worse before they can get better. That's the case with Western Avenue. Just patching or even resurfacing wasn't going to cut it. It needed to be torn up and rebuilt. Albeit at a snail's pace, work on the water lines began in June, followed by the roadwork in July.

The pace of construction and the inconvenience to the street's denizens are points of contention among residents of this politically charged small town.

"My section is now worse than it was," Broderick-Villa said of the excavation in front of his house.

"Two nights ago, I couldn't make it up my driveway. After four times, I figured I'd gun it and see what happened."

"He completely hit rock bottom," said McKee, his next-door neighbor.

On the priority work list in 1998

Western Avenue dates back to at least the 1930s. It probably began as a trail or a path that became a dirt road, no different than many other roads throughout the county. Eventually, it got a layer or two of asphalt, but never the rock-and-gravel road base that enables a road to stand up to the punishment of traffic.

It somehow managed to go decades without being properly repaired or being rebuilt.

"When I got here in 1998, the public works director said, 'Here's a list of priorities,' " City Administrator Chuck Deschenes said. "Western and Oden (Drive) were on it then."

Until now, he said, Waterford didn't have the money. To finance the project, the city needed to pool five or so funding sources, including federal dollars. Some of the funding had time limits -- use it by a certain time, or lose it.

You have to wonder when the project would have begun had those restrictions not forced action.

The construction, expected to cost around $700,000, was supposed to begin in the spring but didn't start until the summer. Now, it might not be completed until January, assuming the weather cooperates.

As it stands, the street is torn up, except for a stretch of pavement right down the middle. The power and utility poles have been moved back to make room for the new sidewalks. The phone and cable lines have been restrung.

Still, folks have had so much trouble getting in and out of their driveways that, with rain in the forecast, the city authorized contractor Teichert to install gravel Thursday to keep cars from bottoming out, as did the mayor's.

"And a broken water line had the whole street flooded two or three weeks ago," McKee said. "It's been one mess after another."

Some residents said they believe the city did a lousy job in lining up the contractors and utilities to create a smooth work flow.

"That is accurate," Deschenes said. "It was a combination of things."

Modesto Irrigation District, AT&T and the cable company all are involved in the project along with road builder Teichert.

"I definitely think it was poor planning in getting it all coordinated," said Amy Davis, who lives in the 200 block of North Western Avenue. "MID started at Yosemite (Highway 132) and worked its way up. The next utility could have come in right behind them."

Instead, there were days and even weeks when no work was done, she and other residents said.

Many sprinklers are kaput

Also, at least some folks whose front yards were carved up to make room for the new sidewalks will have to rebuild their damaged sprinkler systems at their own expense.

"Once (construction) got started, (city officials) told us there was no money to replace them," Davis said.

Deschenes said the city's responsibility toward replacing damaged sprinkler systems will be assessed on a home-by-home basis.

And finally, the mayor is dismayed that the rebuilt North Western Avenue won't reach Yosemite Boulevard. Even before construction began, Waterford residents used Western to bypass the downtown while traveling to the shopping center and high school across Yosemite. The rebuilt avenue is guaranteed to draw even more traffic.

"That's where it puddles up, right there," he said. "It's dangerous. And there's no crosswalk."

He blames Deschenes for not pushing that part of the project through with the California Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over Highway 132.

"I'm not sure we could have done this job any differently," Deschenes said. "Overall, we had to do it the way we did it or we would have lost (some of) the funding."

This saga wouldn't be complete without a clash of personalities. The mayor questions why Deschenes makes more money than administrators of all but the three largest Stanislaus County cities (Modesto, Ceres and Turlock).

Hence, some residents believe Deschenes purposely caused the construction delays to make life miserable for Broderick-Villa.

Clearly, they aren't chummy. Even so, Broderick-Villa said he doesn't believe that's the problem. "I don't think it's malice," he said.

"I don't know what they've been drinking on that street," Deschenes said.

"I have a professional staff. No matter what the political circumstances, they're going to do the best job possible. And I'm part of that staff. It's completely false."

Ultimately, North Western Avenue will be rebuilt, the new sidewalks poured, the storm water will drain and the shock absorbers will get a reprieve.

With any luck, no one ever will get stuck in the mud on prom night again.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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