Controversy over the ultimate fate of Tulare’s Paige Avenue and its interchange with State Route 99 may be much ado about nothing, and in any case the upset is years too soon, say city and county officials.
Popular unease over the aged and inefficient off-ramp stems from the possibility of its closure or reconfiguration in the next decade, and the impact to business and tax revenue that may result. At least one business owner in the area took to social media to draw attention to the issue, and the angst came to a head as the Tulare City Council deadlocked in a 2-2 vote over whether the interchange should continue to exist at its meeting last November.
But they’re all probably jumping the gun.
Paige Staying Open
“There’s no move to shut it down,” said Mike Miller, Tulare’s city engineer. “What we basically have is an old interchange constructed back when that first section of 99 was constructed. The area around it then was all farmland. It’s an interchange that does not meet current standards.”
These days, the area near Paige and 99 has been given over to housing and industry, and is home to a large portion of Tulare’s sales tax base, making the off-ramp a touchy subject at City Hall. Yet no one disputes the interchange is outdated and dangerous, with trucks frequently overturning on the southbound exit and short easement lanes on both on-ramps forcing drivers into dangerous high-speed mergers.
But none of this is new information says Ted Smalley, director of the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG).
“They’ve been talking about this for 30 years or so,” he said.
Time and Money
What’s different now is the money is available to start planning the much needed improvements to Tulare’s traffic. Over the last decade, matching funds from the Measure R one-half percent sales tax have been used to draw more than $1 billion in road funding into the area, and its finally Tulare’s turn to get a portion of that.
“We started talking about the next 15 years of Measure R. It’s right around the corner,” Smalley said. “If we want to start a project, (planning) it takes 10 years. You really have to start working ahead of time if you’re doing to get this done.”
It was during those initial discussions that talk of a new exit about a mile south of Paige serving the International AgriCenter began. The plan would not only lessen the annual traffic snarls each February during the farm show, it would also help open the venue to additional large events throughout the year. And, they have money.
“One of the options that came out is the International Ag folks have agreed to pay $1.5 million of the environmental (impact report cost) and donate the right-of-way,” Smalley said.
That lucrative offer is enticing, as despite all the large projects completed with Measure R funding, none of them has been done without some outside help.
“The challenge that we face is not one big interchange has been done without state or private
money,” Smalley said.
Why Not Both?
There doesn’t have to be a winner and loser here. Other options remain, such as building a new
interchange at the Ag Center and renovating the Paige Avenue exit. But, because the two locations
are less than a mile apart, the standard separation required by Caltrans, a special allowance would have to be granted.
That, however, would require a windfall on the county’s end to pay for the more expensive option.
“There’s certainly not enough state money to build two big interchanges down in Tulare,” Smalley said.
And, there’s no temporary solution available either.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a perfect scenario that everyone thinks is 100% in their favor,” Smalley said.
“People assume you just sort of fix it. You can’t just fix part of it. Caltrans will not allow that.”
In fact, all the options aren’t even on the table yet, and figuring out what those options are is still at least two years away, perhaps more.
“I think in two years we’ll start to see a whole round of workshops and we’ll go from there,” Smalley said. “We’ll look at the potential improvements that can be done. All comments will have to be considered.”
In the Meantime…
Before that happens, a lot of study has to be done, Smalley said, and that data will have to be
“A lot of it has to do with if there is an industrial interchange, what can be done on the Paige
corridor,” he said. “Is it too close? Then you have the commercial alternatives.”
It’s important, he said, to be thorough and to let the state finish its preliminary look at
Tulare’s traffic flow.
“You take all these different settings — instead of guessing we need to look at the facts and get it done,” Smalley said. “I’m going to wait and see, let Caltrans do its job.”
Tulare’s Opinion Will Count
After the state has weighed in, local interested parties will get their say again.
“Ultimately, it’s for the citizens and businesses of Tulare to react from there,” said Smalley. “We expect then (2019 or later) to start technical workshops. There’ll be a number of workshops. We’ll come before (the Tulare City) Council.” Miller says the consensus at City Hall seems to be to keeping the Paige Avenue exit open by improving it, and Smalley says TCAG has a number of other projects, such as interchanges in Visalia and Porterville, that will occupy its time and energy.
There’s also a rumor to put to rest: Paige Avenue is not closing, Miller said. “I would stress people get confused when they hear ‘close Paige Avenue,’” he said. “We’re just talking about the ramp. Paige Avenue will still cross the 99.”