An enduring traffic headache on busy Yosemite Boulevard might not be cured for a year.
Despite years of planning and construction, $2 million in cost overruns and official pleas for patience, the promise of four smoothly flowing lanes from Modesto to Empire is being held up by demands for improvements at nearby railroad crossings.
Crews last summer widened the road to accommodate four lanes, and many drivers figured the end of irritating backups was near. But recently painted stripes funnel traffic into a solitary eastbound lane occupying a fraction of the blacktop for a stretch of about one mile.
Before the $10 million widening, vehicles had access to a center turn lane and shoulders for turns. Both were removed with the new stripes.
Resident David Love says backups are even worse than before construction started. "It's a big mess," he said.
"It's stupidity," said Chris Rose, a transportation supervisor who has traveled Yosemite, also known as East Highway 132, since 1993. "They're going to cause fights and wrecks out there. They've created a traffic jam that wasn't there before."
Local transportation leaders last summer blamed the Stanislaus Council of Governments for frustrating delays and costly changes in the project, the first attempted by the agency whose main mission is long-range transportation planning, not construction.
This time, StanCOG is pointing a finger at the California Department of Transportation, which controls state highways such as Yosemite.
"The state never told us they were not going to allow stripes for two lanes until three months ago," said Vince Harris, StanCOG executive director.
Caltrans spokeswoman Lisa Balcom said, "It's about safety for everyone on the road."
At issue are crossings on the Modesto & Empire Traction Co. railroad running parallel to Yosemite, a few yards to the south. Large eastbound trucks heading to businesses south of Yosemite can't make right turns onto Beard Avenue and Mariposa and McClure roads without swinging wide to the left — into the left lane, if two lanes were there.
They wouldn't encroach on the other lane if the railroad crossings were larger. Everyone agreed that the crossings eventually would be widened, but Caltrans never pressed the issue until crews were ready to stripe for two lanes a few weeks ago, Harris said.
Widening would cost $750K
Widening the three railroad crossings could cost about $750,000 in money that never was set aside.
The county's public works department hopes to secure state funding for the Mariposa crossing, Harris said, which could be done this summer. StanCOG's policy board, made up of elected representatives from the county and its nine cities, next week will be asked to shift money left over from widening Yosemite to the two remaining crossings, Harris said.
The original widening project required $2 million more than initially anticipated, but stiff competition among road builders helped StanCOG save on contracts. So, the work will be done, but it might take eight to 12 months, Harris said.
"Why (the state) didn't identify this as a safety issue several years ago, I can't answer," Harris said. "We're going to be working very, very hard to get this done just as fast as we possibly can."
Some people are tired of waiting.
"We paid (millions) to have that four lanes from Modesto to Empire," said Larry Nydahl. "It was actually better the other way. Now it's a melee. And they wonder why the citizens of Stanislaus County won't vote them a half-cent sales tax. Give me a break."
He was referring to two failed attempts to pass a countywide road tax, in 2006 and 2008.
"It's a waste of taxpayers' money," Mark Cardoza said of the widening project. "They got rid of one choke point and now we've got a new one, defeating the whole purpose of the project. I wish they'd get their ducks in a row and get it right the first time."
The Stanislaus Council of Governments policy board is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Feb. 17 in the third-floor boardroom at 1111 I St., Modesto.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.