Four decades in the making and at a cost of nearly $140 million, Fresno’s Veterans Boulevard is finally a reality.
The long-awaited northwest Fresno project was first mentioned in city planning documents in 1984. It took another 20 years before city and county leaders made serious efforts to act on the plan. And another 20 years after that to bring the vision to life.
The city of Fresno has closed all segments of Veterans Boulevard in preparation for its expected grand opening on Monday. During the closure, crews will be removing all traffic control and barriers that are currently in the roadway. Drivers will be directed to detours utilizing Golden State Boulevard, Bullard, and Herndon Avenues.
The northeast-southwest road will take traffic from Shaw Avenue to Herndon Avenue and includes a Highway 99 interchange. Veterans Boulevard has six lanes, three in each direction. Supporters say it will solve the long-standing challenge of efficiently traveling east to west in the western part of Fresno.
City planners estimate 70,000 vehicles will use the new road daily. The speed limit on Veterans Blvd is 45 mph.
Funding for the project has come from federal, state, and regional sources. The city says the project has been completed on time and under budget.
Eventually, Veterans Boulevard will extend to Grantland Avenue, as homes continue to be developed in that area.
How did this project get from paper to asphalt?
GV Wire spoke with some of the key figures responsible for bringing the Veterans Boulevard project to fruition. Some of the comments have been edited for clarity.
The Origins of Veterans Boulevard
Former Supervisor Phil Larson represented parts of western Fresno County and northwest Fresno from 2003-2014. He responded to demands from constituents.
Larson: You’d be surprised at the number of people that drive in from the west side that work in Fresno, and they work in north Fresno, the banking industry out there, the homes, the River Park, Bellagio, all of that is out there. Well, these cars come in. They would go in Shaw Avenue and they’d have to branch out from there. And they wanted to have a way of getting across town without going through that convoluted area.
Larson held monthly meetings at a local park.
Larson: It was going to enhance growth in the area. It was going to encourage development and it was going to be better for the school district … Things in government, I found it works very slow and it takes one person to kind of ignite things. And when one person ignites things, then it becomes everybody else’s idea. “I take credit for that. I take credit for that.” Well, I take credit for nothing. All I know is we got it together through my office, through my assistant, Jean Barlow, put it together, invited the people, and it kind of grew out of its own.
The Benefits of Veterans
Fresno City Councilman Mike Karbassi, who represents the northwest area that Veterans Boulevard serves, inherited the project when he took office in 2019. The project just received its final piece of funding, a federal BUILD grant, as he was sworn in.
Karbassi: I was so fortunate to come into office at a time when we were fully funded. What Veterans Boulevard has opened up is definite traffic congestion relief. This is going to be huge.
Larson, however, was worried whether the project would ever be completed when he left office in 2015.
Larson: I wasn’t confident at all. All I knew is the groundwork had been laid and that the strokes have been taken to groundbreaking, but nothing had happened. But they said it was going to happen. And the guy that told me that was Scott Mozier.
Fresno Public Works Director Scott Mozier has been with the city for more than 20 years, the last 10 in his current role. Through studies and plans, the city worked on the project. It wasn’t until residential development began in the early 2000s that things moved along.
Mozier: Veterans Boulevard means congestion relief, mobility for east and west across the 99 corridor, improved safety, eliminating at-grade railroad crossings, replacing it with an overpass, and also a really modern pedestrian and bicycle corridor with bike lanes … This addresses some of the concerns the group calls themselves Forgotten Fresno. So this represents a very, very significant investment in the area.
Karbassi said he had to make sure that other councilmembers didn’t move money to other parts of the city.
Karbassi: The west area of Fresno, which affects three council districts, has been ignored for so long that this is going to really open up the potential for homes to be built in the area. And with homes comes commercial. People want a grocery store out there. So my hope with Veterans Boulevard … we are already hearing from interested parties that want to build out in the West area. I’m encouraged by companies like Sprouts taking a look out there, having a grocery store out there is going to be huge.
Veterans Boulevard will also alleviate one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in Fresno: a railroad crossing at Shaw and Golden State avenues.
Diana Gomez, Caltrans District 6 Director: Every time Herndon and Shaw, when we have those trains crossing traffic, backs up tremendously. Right now those arterial roads are to capacity and Veterans Boulevard is going to help take away traffic from Shaw; traffic away from Herndon and keep everyone moving east-west.
Finding the Money
Securing money would be the biggest challenge, Larson and others said. He said the state would rather spend the money in the Bay Area or southern California.
Larson: Being the minority, we had to fight for it.
Several, including Larson, give Darius Assemi credit for getting the state involved. Assemi served on the California Transportation Commission from 2009-2016.
(Assemi is publisher of GV Wire and president of Granville Homes.)
Larson: Darius is a very persuasive gentleman, and I think it was just his personality and his fortitude that he put forward for that.
Assemi: By and large, I worked with all of our representatives for the last two decades … recognizing that this is a missing link that will help expedite the commute for Fresnans. One of the things that we’re synonymous for is low commute times, except for folks that want to cross (Highway) 99 and Veterans Boulevard helps bridge that gap, literally bridge that gap and reduce commute times and reduce frustration for folks.
Assemi said a key factor was approving funding for Veterans Boulevard before the implementation of SB 743 — a 2013 state law that changed how transportation impacts are measured for state support.
Assemi: The timing was right on getting Veterans Boulevard funded and built. Today, capacity enhancement on freeways becomes substantially more complicated because of SB 743.
Another benefit, Assemi said, is Veterans Boulevard will help complete a “beltway” around the city, roughly from Herndon in the north; Veterans Boulevard/Grantland Avenue in the west; Highway 180 south; and Highway 168 east.
Measure C was also a source of funds. In 2006, the Fresno County sales tax measure for transportation projects was up for renewal with local voters.
Mozier: One project gained a lot of momentum in that process. And it was Veterans Boulevard. So during that time, Veterans Boulevard became a regional project on the proposed Measure C expenditure plan.
Gomez: The funding was not there. And so that was the big key thing is helping the city and the county supervisor (Steve) Brandau, at that time he was a councilman … was one of those individuals that kept pushing for it, went to Washington, D.C. with others to help secure funding for that interchange. And our role from day one has been keeping the project moving from what we call the project initiation stage all the way through construction.
Getting Caltrans/HSR Involved
There were some technical aspects to deal with as well, Larson said. That included working with the High Speed Rail Authority.
Larson: We had to have an overpass, but it had to be high enough to clear whatever the heights of the trains were that were coming through. And they granted us resources for that area.
Another aspect that Caltrans/HSR had control over was the Highway 99 interchange.
Gomez: We’re really excited about Veterans Boulevard. It’ll provide another entrance/exit from State Route 99, and our role has been primarily oversight. And we did provide some funding for the the interchange.
Gomez said the fact there were not existing residential or businesses along the route made Veterans Boulevard easier to build.
Gomez: There’s just a lot of open land out there. So there wasn’t a whole lot of controversy over this interchange. I think everybody rallied around this interchange and everybody wanted to see it built.
Gomez said Caltrans was on board with the project, which helped with grants and other funding.
Gomez: During this process, we’ve had three or four different directors. My predecessor was very supportive of this. We help in providing that support for them to go get those grants, providing letters of support. That was also our role, just continuing supporting at every phase as they were trying to get this built.
Mozier said a decision to build an overpass adjacent to Carnegie Avenue saved millions.
Mozier: The city was able to propose to high speed rail instead of that, for the city to give up the Carnegie Avenue grade crossing and instead replace that with the Veterans Boulevard overpass … That was done at a cost of $25 million. So that partnership basically saved taxpayers $15 million of what it would have cost to keep Carnegie open. And instead it contributes towards getting Veterans Boulevard done.
Building an Interchange
Teichert Construction partnered with MCM Construction for the winning $48 million bid ($53 million with change orders) to build the Veterans Boulevard/Highway 99 interchange.
Raymond Hernandez, Teichert estimator: We are currently under budget and scheduled to finish on time.
James Dunnington, Teichert project engineer: We just have a lot of material to bring in. You’ve got over 300,000 yards of dirt import to that job. Then you also have 200,000 yards of excavation; 40,000 tons of hot mixed asphalt; 80,000 tons of aggregate based on the job. So there’s just a lot of material to bring in. As far as engineering, it’s just trying to coordinate that effort and make sure that you’re not affecting the public.
During construction, Teichert built the on and off ramps from Highway 99 first. That allowed traffic to be detoured easier, when the freeway shut down at night for construction.
Hernandez: This is a major milestone for the company because it’s one of the larger interchanges that we’ve done for the city of Fresno. It’s a two-year project that’s currently a success financially. We’ve had over 33,000 labor hours and zero recordable injuries on the project, which is a huge success for any construction company. So it’s it’s been a great source of pride for Teichert.
What to Name the Project
At those early meetings organized by Larson, what to name the project came quickly.
Larson: The push became more for something to remember the veterans. And that’s what kind of brought the name of Veteran’s Boulevard in. Hopefully there will be some type of memorabilia that will be implemented along the way as it’s developed.
Mozier: The street really needed a name. And during the Autry administration, there was a decision to to designate it as a Veterans Boulevard, really, to bring honor and recognition to our veterans. And so there was some definite excitement.
An Innovative Project
There are technical innovations Mozier is proud of.
Mozier: It’s a very exciting project. It is not just a simple street. It has a lot of innovative measures ranging from it’s very pedestrian and bicycle friendly. This is our first project really in the Fresno area or really in in the Central Valley that has a grade separated walking and biking trail through the interchange.
Gomez: This is a unique type of interchange. We don’t have this kind of interchange in District 6 where we separate the vehicles from the vulnerable users, the bikers and the pedestrians. So we’re really excited to showcase and highlight this new type of interchange.
The crossing over railroad tracks will not only make commuter life easier, but will also benefit Central Unified school buses.
Mozier: Once Veterans Boulevard is finished … that will open the way for those routes to be free of the train delays.