City won’t take Hwy 63 back from state

City council denies councilmember Greg Collins’ request to consider asking CalTrans to relinquish control of Court and Locust through downtown

By Reggie Ellis

VISALIA – Having a state highway run through your downtown may not be ideal but it’s cheaper than maintaining it yourself. 

That was the consensus of the Visalia City Council at its Dec. 2 meeting when one councilmember suggested taking Court and Locust streets north of Highway 198 to the city limits back from CalTrans and removing it from the list of state highways. Councilmember Greg Collins asked the council to discuss at a future meeting a request that the State of California relinquish the northern portion of Highway 63 to the city.  

Collins said state control of Highway 63 through downtown has created a number of ongoing issues, including higher speed limits, bureaucracy of encroachments, not pedestrian friendly and that the State won’t allow for certain improvements, such as bulb outs or planting of trees at intersections to slow traffic and make the downtown more pedestrian friendly. Collins also said taking back responsibility for the roadway would mean an opportunity to establish additional parking. 

“It’s a long process, but something of this importance to the community means we should move forward,” Collins said.

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen, who also serves as president of the Downtown Visalians, said most property owners he talked to were not in favor of the proposal and that they were “fine with the way it is.”

Councilman Phil Cox pointed out that the city would also lose the majority of funding for maintenance of traffic signals on Court Street and Locust Street provided by CalTrans. 

Councilmember Brian Poochigian agreed. 

“I think this is too much of an expense for the city and too much revenue will be lost,” Poochigian said.

Collins motioned to request that CalTrans relinquish the stretch of highway and Mayor Bob Link seconded but the motion failed 2-3, with Cox, Poochigian and Nelsen voting against it.

During the Dec. 16 council meeting, Collins said he wanted to revisit the issue after hearing that a woman was killed while crossing Highway 63 (Dinuba Boulevard) north of Ferguson Street. The woman was crossing the two-lane highway when she was struck by a vehicle heading southbound on Dinuba Boulevard at around 10 p.m. on Dec. 6. The woman, 30-year-old Desiree Alonzo, was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center where she died from her injuries less than three days later. The driver was not arrested and the cause of the collision is still under investigation.

Woodlake faced a similar situation in the late 1990s when it wanted to make repairs to its version of Main Street on Valencia Boulevard, which is State Route 245. Then Mayor Chuck Ray made it is campaign promise to clean up Valenica Boulevard and repair the asphalt, gutters, curbs and sidewalks. The city harassed CalTrans for seven years before signing a new agreement with the state transportation agency in 2005, which allowed for minor repairs to periphery items but not to the roadway and asphalt itself.

Those improvements didn’t come until a decade later when Woodlake finished its roundabout at the intersection of two state highway bisecting the town Highway 216 (Naranjo Boulevard) or Highway 245 (Valencia Boulevard). The roundabout project added new curbs, gutters and sidewalks at the intersection of Naranjo and Valencia boulevards for a half block in every direction. This tied into the Downtown Improvement Project which added new gutters and storm drains in addition to new sidewalks (stamped concrete, colored, stone or brick), decorative benches and street lighting, bulb outs each intersection and planted new trees along Valencia Boulevard from Naranjo to Lakeview and on Lakeview from Valencia to Magnolia. The total cost of transforming the entrance to downtown Woodlake was about $5 million. 

City manager Ramon Lara said most of the two projects came from the state’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) fund, Measure R, the countywide, half-cent transportation tax, and city funding with little coming from CalTrans. Lara said the city is now working on the North Valencia Boulevard project to complete improvements along Highway 245 through the rest of the city limits. Only about $50,000 of the $1 million project is being funded by CalTrans but Lara said CalTrans has become an excellent partner to the city and provides funding for the ongoing costs of maintaining the roadway.

“Having CalTrans provide the ongoing maintenance funding is an advantage,” Lara said. “We have enough of our own streets to worry about that we don’t want the responsibility of maintaining the highway.”

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