After long years and even decades of talk and study, a preferred path for the North County Corridor is emerging.
The best route among four options for a future expressway skirting Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale would provide easy access to businesses close to Oakdale's south end while sparing more homes east of town, Oakdale leaders said in an important official recommendation to the California Department of Transportation.
Those following the route adoption process know that option as Alternative 1B.
Previous disputes over various options near Modesto and Riverbank were resolved long ago, leaving the only remaining question marks near Oakdale. Leaders of Modesto, Riverbank and Stanislaus County have said they would go along with Oakdale's preference, which should carry weight when Caltrans makes a final selection in about a year. Construction could start in five years.
"Clearly, 1B is best for Oakdale. Is it best for ConAgra?" said Oakdale Councilman Rich Murdoch, framing what proved to be the final question confronting city leaders.
The company, with 1,000 workers stewing Hunt's tomatoes and canning Rosarita refried beans, is among the county's largest. And ConAgra prefers Alternative 2B, senior environment director Tracy Kayhanfar said. That would carry vehicles much further south, along a beefed-up Claribel Road.
1B would sacrifice some of the farmland where ConAgra disposes leftover water after processing vegetables. About 30 percent of that land no longer would be usable for that purpose, said Oakdale's John Brichetto, who owns most of the property.
"I'm trying to save 1,000 jobs and it lands on deaf ears," Brichetto said.
Those jobs should be saved regardless, City Manager Bryan Whitemyer said, under a plan yet to be revealed. It would involve helping the company dispose of wastewater some other way, perhaps by piping it elsewhere.
Mayor Pat Paul and council members J.R. McCarty and Cherilyn Bairos indicated they would not vote for 1B if they didn't believe a solution for ConAgra can be reached, and the vote Monday was unanimous. Councilman Tom Dunlop abstained to avoid a conflict of interest stemming from his longtime employment with a company that will be affected by the future freeway.
"It doesn't come down to choosing between 1,000 jobs and what's best for Oakdale; I believe we can have both," Murdoch said.
Paul said she "agonized over" the selection and ultimately agreed.
Whitemyer said 1B will provide Oakdale with three points of access to the bypass, compared with two if the option further south were chosen. That will be important for trucks heading to and from future companies in five separate areas designated for growth on Oakdale's west and south fringes, former mayor Farrell Jackson said.
To the east, neighbors along Stearns Road south of Highway 108, and north of the highway near Atlas Road, persuaded city leaders to officially oppose an option tying the North County Corridor to the highway near Atlas. Nearly everyone prefers a tie-in near Lancaster Road, disrupting far fewer residents.
"I'm more than elated to see your choice is going out further," said Curt Porter, a Stearns land owner.
"I don't know what Caltrans will do. I hope they listen," Paul said.
Elected leaders with the county and Modesto and Riverbank are expected to back up Oakdale with formal votes in coming weeks.
"If we get consensus with (all four agencies), I think that's pretty powerful," Whitemyer said.
Riverbank called the North County Corridor a "vital investment in our community" in its letter to Caltrans. That city also hopes to capitalize on a smooth-flowing link to Highway 99, especially for companies in the former Army ammunition depot at Claus and Claribel roads.
Caltrans will accept comments through Oct. 16 on key North County Corridor environmental documents emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mailed to the California Department of Transportation, 855 M St., Suite 200, Fresno, 93721.
The road, costing from $660 million to $699 million, would sacrifice more than 100 homes and some three dozen businesses, studies say. The government would pay owners fair market value and help relocate those displaced.