After a half-century of delays, transportation officials seem to be moving on the idea of a new freeway segment west of downtown Modesto.
And like most major road projects, the Highway 132 expressway draws plenty of praise and sneers.
About 100 people showed up to view maps and voice opinions at a public scoping meeting earlier this week, signaling that environmental studies are at long last under way.
Skeptics continue to scoff despite a new schedule showing construction starting in 2014 and finishing in 2016. Others anticipate congestion relief.
"It's going to be great," said west Modesto resident Luis Muñoz, who has grown weary of slogging through traffic on Kansas and Emerald avenues.
The California Department of Transportation decades ago acquired land for much of the initial stretch just south of Kansas. Leaders hope the freeway will run about three miles before dipping south to join Highway 132, also known as Maze Boulevard, near Dakota Avenue.
The four-lane segment would cost up to $170 million, officials say. Only a fraction has been set aside.
Preliminary drawings show many options, some including ramps at Carpenter Road and Dakota in addition to Highway 99 and Maze.
Ron Johns used to run a fruit stand at his 300-foot strip along Carpenter, just south of the envisioned expressway, which could become prime freeway frontage. "I've been crossing my fingers, hoping this would happen," he said, eying colorful maps in the SOS Club's gym.
He acknowledges, however, that he was born about the time Caltrans was buying right of way, in 1962. And his property may be pre-zoned for homes when Modesto eventually annexes it, according to city maps.
Two meetings, same night
Like many at Monday's open house, Johns was headed over to City Hall where planning commissioners discussed changes to Modesto's general plan, a document guiding growth. Several wondered why the city and state scheduled two important meetings on the same night that could be expected to draw some of the same audience.
Others discussed Highway 132's possibilities at length with local and state transportation leaders, but wondered why officials offered no open- microphone period. Caltrans' Christina Hibbard said a formal public hearing will be staged next winter after a draft environmental document is circulated.
Ed Ciszek, a west Modesto resident for 20 years, said he's not excited about the noise and air pollution another thoroughfare would bring.
"I grew up in LA. I know about freeways," Ciszek said.
Patty Kearsley, 55, loved her childhood home so much that she bought it from her parents and still lives there. Her father sold some right of way to Caltrans back in 1961.
"I always said, 'Well, they're just getting our feathers ruffled,' " Kearsley said, referring to fits and starts in expressway plans over the years. But a printed construction schedule on an easel put her in a new mood, she said. The freeway would run thousands of cars each day through her back yard, now home to a pond that draws migrating waterfowl.
Several of her neighbors said they would prefer that Caltrans widen Maze to six lanes, an option that the state is required to study.
Maureen Dick, who has lived here 30 years, said: "I don't want to move. I love my home. The west side is a fantastic place; look at all the people here."
Hibbard said she was "very pleased" at the turnout, as she previously received few calls compared with other high-profile projects such as the North County Corridor. That $1.2 billion freeway, which would link Highway 99 at Salida to Highway 108 east of Oakdale, remains the top priority for transportation officials, who haven't secured that money either.
Key ingredient: Dollars
Highway 132's new schedule contains asterisks with a disclaimer that all depends on money, which has been in short supply as agencies wrestle with drastic budget cuts.
Some merchants are concerned that maps show various options for interchange configurations that could affect their businesses. For example, one version would close the southbound exit from Highway 99 onto Kansas.
Bobby Bryan moved his shop, Wicked Twins Custom Cycles, to that exit to take advantage of prime visibility, and it's worked.
"They come off the freeway to get gas, they see us and they come over to check it out," Bryan said. If the exit disappears, he said, "We're screwed."
Officials eventually want to smooth out all of Highway 132's zigs and zags, especially in downtown Modesto. Future construction phases could claim homes and businesses along Fifth, Sixth and D streets downtown, according to a 2008 report.
Opinions on Highway 132 improvements can be sent to Caltrans, 2015 E. Shields Ave., Suite 100, Fresno 93726 or to email@example.com. For more information, call 525-4600 or 948-7889, or see www.stancog.org/pdf/final-feasibility-study.pdf.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.