Scott Calkins is a soft spoken gentleman serving as an unpaid volunteer on the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Stanislaus Council of Governments (STANCOG). STANCOG is the lead government agency for the first phase of the Highway 132 Freeway project. The project was initiated at the behest of STANCOG. The agency is comprised of a Board of Directors who are elected public officials from the various cities and districts of Stanislaus County.
The mission of the Citizens Advisory Committee is to provide the layman’s perspective to the various projects undertaken by STANCOG. After examining an issue submitted by the STANCOG staff, the committee makes recommendations to the Board. The Board can adopt or ignore the citizens’ recommendations. Most of the time, the citizens’ committee approves the recommendations of the STANCOG staff without changes and the Board then also approves staff recommendations without changes.
Scott Calkins lives in the part of west Modesto that would suffer the greatest adverse impact from construction of the 132 freeway. In an unprecedented action, Mr. Calkins is circulating a petition to stop the project. Dissatisfied with the apparent failure of the Board and the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) to fully address the concerns of the community, Mr. Calkins has come to the conclusion that the best option for the 132 freeway is the “no build” option.
The No Build Option
This option says that we should not build a 132 freeway and that we will remove the freeway from all current and future maps that plan for the growth of the community.
The “no build” position asserts that the 132 roadway does not carry enough traffic to justify building a freeway. Its supporters argue that the negative environmental impact of a freeway is greater than any economic benefit the project would ever bring.
The mission of the 132 freeway is to encourage local urban growth, which MAY lead to economic growth. Based on the experience from widening the 205 freeway through Tracy, a freeway in the 132 transportation corridor may encourage more commuters to drive to jobs in the Bay Area and have little positive impact in creating local jobs.
The freeway would not benefit the farming community. The reduced transportation time for products would be negligible. Trucks can only travel 55mph and the present route has a 55mph speed limit most of its length. Hundreds of acres of prime farmland would be permanently taken out of production to build the freeway. Traffic signals would be installed in places they don’t currently exist, further reducing any projected time savings. More traffic also leads to more accidents.
No one talks about how the future 132 freeway will be put through the heart of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. No Environmental Impact Report has been submitted for the project yet, but no one should expect a negative declaration.
In the 1990’s, this writer saw a study that said that at the rate at which commuters are flocking to the Great Valley, the Altamont Pass Interstate 580 transportation corridor will need a 17 lane freeway by 2050. This is because houses are being built much faster than local jobs are being created. Hence, Central Valley residents will need more traffic lanes to get to their jobs. This is not sound urban planning.
The Safety Myth
Some argue that building the 132 freeway will result in greater safety through fewer accidents. The argument is dubious at best. Ever since the California Highway Patrol started cracking down on speeders, accidents are much less frequent on the current route 132. Additional safety improvements to the existing roadway are possible at a small fraction of the cost of a freeway.
Freeways have many serious accidents because folks drive on them a lot faster than the speed limit. The number of traffic lanes is irrelevant. Wrong way drunk drivers cause head on fatal crashes on freeways as well as two lane highways.
If safety were a genuine concern, STANCOG would have appropriated in the 1990’s the $15 million then needed to safety-proof the roadway with dividers and other highway safety technology. Safety is the myth to promote construction of any freeway.
Public Participation In Phase One
Public participation in providing input for Phase One of the 132 Freeway project has been encouraged by Caltrans and STANCOG. The public has seen maps showing what the road builders intend to construct. Neighborhood meetings have been held. There have been opportunities for the public to comment at meetings, but critics say that there has been inadequate response to the public concerns made at the meetings. Hence, some of those who have commented are frustrated about the inadequate reply and think that their comments either are not being considered or are being dismissed out of hand. In introducing his petition, Scott Calkins expressed frustration about the lack of answers.
When this writer requested a face to face meeting with the Project Manager, a special meeting was held in the Stockton office of Caltrans. The Project Manager and other staff members were willing to discuss concerns with the public and hold special meetings upon request as needed. However, three months after the meeting, this writer’s concerns also have yet to be addressed. Answers had originally been promised for a meeting scheduled for June, but that meeting has been rescheduled to an unspecified date in August. More time was needed due to the number of issues to be addressed.
Admittedly, there are institutional biases within Caltrans. The agency has to comply with its own safety standards of design and construction. Its traffic engineers are experts in traffic planning and are the folks most competent to design the best project. They have limited resources to get the job done.
One may argue that Caltrans has an inadequate budget to do a satisfactory project, but the agency is not permitted to complain about inadequate resources. The engineers have to work with what they are given. The lack of adequate funding for interchanges and ramps is a major concern of some public comments.
Is the “no build” option a feasible and desirable alternative? Freeways 99, 120, and 205 could be widened to accommodate all future freeway traffic between Modesto and the Bay Area, sparing the farming community and neighborhoods on the west side from the environmental trauma of a freeway. This option would definitely be preferable if a mediocre 132 facility would cause more problems than it would solve.
Perhaps citizens should demonstrate a greater concern about STANCOG’s master plan for urban growth. If the “no build” option is to be advocated, STANCOG’s decisions to encourage urban growth need to be challenged as it is the legislative body that originally asked our state and federal legislators to secure funding and placed the order to build the road.
The 132 Freeway project has been on state planning maps for about 50 years. Many longtime residents have expected the freeway to be built at some point in time. To change the mood of the public to a “no build” option will take a lot of political lobbying and added support from the community. The project currently has more supporters than detractors.
Growth can be beneficial when done properly. But this community has not been smart about growth over the past 30 years. A new freeway will not be a cure all, but the merits should be fully considered before the plan is discarded for good. Scott Calkins has examined the project and made one citizen’s determination that it is not worth building. His petition is to see how many other citizens agree.
If the money for phase 1 is returned to the federal government unused, it’s not likely that it will become available at a later date. Furthermore, the money appropriated for Freeway 132 cannot be used for any other project. Therefore, the money makes local politicians even more reluctant to cancel the project.
The “no build” option has always been an alternative. If the 132 freeway is not built, freeways 99, 120, and 205 would need to be widened sooner rather than later. All of the above freeways are now at capacity during rush hour and need to be widened even if the 132 freeway is built. San Joaquin County would have to agree to further widening and that County is not legally required to do so.
A Permanent Bottlemneck May Be In Store
As mentioned earlier, a 17 lane freeway may be needed to transport valley commuters through the Altamont Pass via Interstate 580. The impediment could be that Alameda County may veto any widening of Interstate 580 through the Altamont Pass. The County has few citizens living east of the Altamont Pass summit, so few of its commuting citizens would benefit from the widening of 580. Thus, if Freeways 132, 580, and 205 feed more traffic into the Altamont Pass, the pass could become the ultimate bottleneck as Alameda County becomes the gatekeeper to the Great Valley. A restricted gate could negate any positive benefit of a Route132 four lane freeway.
Some planners think that Alameda County would never decline to widen Interstate 580. However, if that county did agree to widen the Altamont, the widening would adversely impact Interstate 580 and 680 traffic west of the Altamont Pass. Interstate 580 is already 5 lanes in the eastbound direction. Will Alameda County want to widen that section of roadway to 6 or more lanes just to accommodate the Central Valley?
A more effective strategy for Stanislaus County business may be a greater focus on the creation of local jobs, with less effort to promote commuter traffic to the Bay Area. In Orange County California, some of the freeways are up to 8 lanes wide. During rush hour, they are filled to capacity. Every time another freeway is built, more cars, more houses, more people, and more air pollution come. Without more jobs, more development does not guarantee a better community.
We have heard many times the promoters’ justification for more freeways. The truth is that everything won’t be peaches and cream if the 132 freeway is built. Too bad the public did not have much discussion before the decision was made to build it. The proposed freeway was on a map and a County Supervisor decided he wanted it built, so now the community is faced with a project that has questionable value or merit. Scott Calkins is having his say now.