McHenry upgrade to bring delays

Motorists between Modesto and Escalon can expect delays, but no long detours, for four to six months as crews upgrade the busy intersection of McHenry Avenue with Ladd Road.

A scheme to fast-track the work in only five weeks fell apart this week. That plan would have required closing the intersection altogether, forcing detours for 13,000 vehicles each day.

Stanislaus County got verbal approval for the short plan from owners of the four corners, including Al's Furniture, as well as Escalon, Riverbank and the California Department of Transportation, which owns nearby Highway 108. On Wednesday, the county issued news releases and signs went up warning of the closure and detours.

But officials in Riverbank had second thoughts because detour signs would push thousands of cars through that city for those five weeks, starting Oct. 19.

"I think you would see the largest traffic jams in the history of Stanislaus County if that occurred," said Riverbank City Manager Rich Holmer. "I'm not being facetious."

Matt Machado, the county's public works director, said he would drop the fast track without unanimous consent. His office sent out new notices Friday saying the five-week plan is dead.

"If (Riverbank) is not comfortable with it, we don't want to move forward. Their opinion matters," Machado said.

But Al's Furniture owner Rick Walker, who supported the shorter timeline, wonders why his opinion no longer matters. He questioned Friday whether his 41-year-old business, bruised by the recession, can survive six months of a construction zone tripping up customers.

"They're cutting off my access to the public," Walker said.

The longer plan will feature times when McHenry is reduced to one lane with traffic controlled by flag people, producing frustrating waits. Machado said crews will try to keep that to a minimum by avoiding peak commute hours, because "otherwise, it's going to back up for miles and miles."

County leaders, expecting to pay $2.43 million for the intersection upgrade, were happy when the price of road materials dropped and bidding became more competitive. They hired Granite Construction of Stockton to do it for $1.5 million.

Crews will replace the blinking red light at the four-way stop with signal lights and will widen the corner to fit right- and left-turn lanes, helping traffic to flow more smoothly in the long run. "It's going to improve that intersection immensely," Machado said.

Of 20,000 cars passing through daily, 13,000 come from or head to the north, the direction of Del Rio and Escalon.

Caltrans hopes next year to improve the Highway 108 curve south of Al's Furniture, on the main path from Modesto to Riverbank, Machado said.

But Walker, whose store was started by and named for his late father, had braced for more painful inconvenience over a shorter period. He lives in Escalon and wouldn't mind a seven-mile jog into Riverbank, if it lasted only a few weeks, he said.

Machado said Riverbank might have gone along with the fast track if Caltrans, which controls a signal at the city's Highway 108 intersection with Santa Fe Road, would alter the timing of lights to account for traffic surging to and from the north. Preference now is given to east-west traffic, which normally dominates that intersection.

But wheels at Caltrans can turn slowly and the county wasn't able to get approval in time, so Riverbank's protest trumped.

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.