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Is Controversial Highway 99 Ramp Revamp for Safety, Business, or Both?

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The Fresno City Council in December voted to accept the environmental study for major renovations to the onramps and offramps at North Avenue and Highway 99.

One councilmember worries that in doing so, the action would rope the city into an ongoing legal battle involving community groups that claim the new interchange would bring added truck traffic to an already-polluted area of Fresno.

Other councilmembers counter that the renovations will increase traffic safety and bring much-needed infrastructure such as sidewalks, traffic lights, and bike lanes to the area.

At issue is 3,000 acres in southeast Fresno that business advocates and county supervisors want to dedicate for future industrial development.

The environmental study did not look at the impacts of a new business park there, which has yet to go from idea to formal proposal.

However, Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias said it was “naive” to ignore that the interchange at North Avenue and another under Fresno County’s oversight at American Avenue would directly service such a business park.

“I don’t see how any public agency can suggest that a 3,000-acre industrial park in the dirtiest air basin in the country would not be a significant enough impact to be included in an environmental study under CEQA,” Arias said.

Other councilmembers said the $112 million project would not only make the notoriously dangerous highway sections safer, but the money represents the kind of investment needed in oft-neglected southeast and south-central Fresno.

Fresno City Council approved the action on Dec. 14, voting 5-2, with Arias and then-council president Tyler Maxwell opposed.

Accident Data

In the last 10 years, there have been 943 accidents in the nearly three-mile stretch from American Avenue to North Avenue, according to Andrew Benelli, assistant public works director for the city.

Councilmember Annalisa Perea said the high number of accidents and pollution from backed-up traffic would continue unless those interchanges were modernized.

“This is the kind of investment we look for in south of Fresno it’s not just yes, planning for the future — potentially — we can’t predict the future, but it’s really taking care of the issues that we have in front of us today, which is a huge safety concern,” Perea said.

South Fresno State Route 99 Corridor project. (Caltrans)

American and North Avenues Need Update: CalTrans

CalTrans reports that the two interchanges do not meet modern design standards. The two on- and off-ramps are separated from each other, and the dimensions make it difficult for large trucks to navigate them.

CalTrans anticipates traffic to increase in the area, necessitating the renovations.

The renovations would take out stop signs, widen streets, and add sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic lights to the routes leading to and from Highway 99, Benelli said. Because work at North Avenue would affect city property, councilmembers have to OK the environmental documents.

“It’s really a substantial safety improvement,” Benelli said.

Benelli said most of the accidents are rear-enders because traffic stacks up.

Data from the California Highway Patrol sent to GV Wire show that while American and North avenues are the least trafficked interchanges from Clovis to Jensen avenues, they do have some of the highest accident ratios.

From 2013 to 2022, American and North avenues only had 33,050 and 87,450 trips on and off the ramps, according to CalTrans. Clovis, Central, and Jensen had; 133,290; 122,800; and 229,600 trips, respectively, in that same period. But the 231 and 252 accidents in that period for American and North avenues, respectively, are equivalent to 699 and 288 for every 100,000 trips.

Clovis and Jensen’s 321 and 366 accidents compute to 241 and 159 accidents, respectively, for every 100,000 trips, according to CHP data. Data for Central Avenue was not included.

Proposed Business Industrial Campus study area (GV Wire/Justine Cha)

Interchange Renovation About Industrial Development, Not Safety: Arias

Arias called out the need for bike lanes and sidewalks for interchanges dominated by trips to industrial areas.

“If council is familiar with this area, sidewalks that go to nowhere is not really a safety improvement,” Arias said.

The passenger-car traffic is largely to and from business, Arias said. A letter from the Fresno Chamber of Commerce in support of the project clued Arias into thinking it was more about industrial development than safety.

The comparatively-sparse population is one reason Fresno County supervisors say they want to dedicate 3,000 acres near there to business development.

Planners left out the Business Industrial Campus — which they call a study area — from their upcoming General Plan Update.

But industrial development has been a point of contention. In December, news website Fresnoland reported that Caltrans and Fresno County officials had multiple communications and meetings regarding the Business Industrial Campus, even before the project was announced.

The April 2023 lawsuit from community groups Friends of Calwa, Building Healthy Communities, and Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, represented by Stanford Law Group, came before the news broke about the meetings between Caltrans and Fresno County.

The lawsuit being heard at both Fresno County Superior Court and U.S. District Court are ongoing. Further case management will occur in February, according to court filings.

“I’m fully aware that improvements have to be made at this interchange for safety improvements,” Arias said. “But I’m also not naive nor ignorant of the fact that the reason we get a letter from the Chamber of Commerce has nothing to do with safety, it has to do with industrial development interest.”

Lawsuits About Killing Economic Development: Karbassi

Mike Leonardo, executive director of the Fresno County Transportation Authority, said calling the Business Industrial Campus a proposal “is really even kind of a stretch.”

The county funded a study to see if it was viable but pursuing the campus would require a separate environmental study.

Voting against the project would result in the loss of $32 million in state funding for the project, said Leonardo.

Fresno City Councilmember Mike Karbassi said opposition to the project is about killing economic development in Fresno.

Karbassi said community groups have weaponized California’s landmark environmental law.

“Because they can’t build popular support and consensus at the table, they litigate and in the end, we lose out on tens of millions of dollars,” Karbassi said.

Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.