Caltrans’ June newsletter probably did more harm than good from a public relations standpoint. The newsletter was intended to update stakeholders about the project’s progress. Instead, a front page article in the Modesto Bee claimed the newsletter was misleading. Even worse, the information in the newsletter aggravated critics of the project who believe their comments and suggestions will be totally ignored.
The newsletter announced that construction will begin in 2016, with completion in 2018. Also, according to the newsletter, the toxic waste mounds (barium) will be “encapsulated” in concrete. The mounds will not be removed.
Carpenter Road, the major arterial for access to the west side of town, will have only a partial interchange, allowing access in the west bound direction and egress in the east bound direction. This means that west side traffic will be unable to enter the freeway to go east bound or exit the freeway at Carpenter Road when travelling west. Not stated in the newsletter: The lack of freeway access would become a major impediment to economic development in parts of the west side.
The newsletter also says that the freeway will end at Dakota Road and that westbound traffic will be routed southbound on Dakota back to the present Maze Road alignment.
The information in the newsletter coincides exactly with the original proposal submitted to the community over two years ago, before any comments were taken by Caltrans. Citizens who have been participating in the meetings with Caltrans were caught totally by surprise. The immediate conclusion was that Caltrans intends to proceed with its original plans regardless of community input. The authoritative newsletter left no doubt that plans had been finalized.
In Garth Stapley’s Modesto Bee article, an official was quoted as saying that Caltrans did not adequately proof read the newsletter before it was released. One has to wonder how such an authoritative newsletter could confuse Caltrans officials as to its intent and meaning.
Project Manager Debra Haack said people weren’t supposed to find out about the decision until January. In May, this reporter was told by a local official that decisions would be announced in September at a Stanislaus Council of Governments meeting. Shouldn’t the public be informed immediately when a decision is made?
Toxic Waste Credibility Gap
Caltrans has steadfastly maintained that the toxic waste piles in the 132 freeway right of way are safe, containing only low levels of contaminants. If this is true, then the cost of removal of the dirt should be minimal, far less than the cost of encapsulation. The proper equipment can move large amounts of dirt at a relatively low cost. Caltrans’ assertion that moving the dirt would be very expensive would be true only if the soil were highly contaminated.
Below Grade Freeway A Better Option?
To minimize the noise disruption the proposed 132 freeway would have on the west side, this writer has suggested that the freeway be constructed below grade within the city limits. This would put the grade level of the freeway near that of the 99 Freeway. If the toxic dirt mounds were removed, then the extra cost for below grade construction would be justifiable. An excellent argument can also be made that an elevated freeway would make the community look less attractive by creating a physical barrier between two sections of town.
Citizens on the west side of Modesto don’t really know what to expect. Caltrans should publish a revised newsletter to tell the truth about what is going on. The longer the agency delays, the lower its credibility and the less likely it will receive full cooperation from the community. Caltrans has extensive experience in doing construction projects. The taxpayer can only feel disappointed by the lack of accurate communication and even less confident about receiving a project that will benefit the community.