State details plans to fix Visalia’s worst intersection

CalTrans progressed project to improve Mineral King Ave. traffic at failing interchange of Highway 198 and Lovers Lane

VISALIA – The worst. A cluster. The biggest traffic issue in Visalia. There are a lot of ways to describe the Highway 198 interchange at Lovers Lane and none of them accurately convey the frustration felt by drivers during morning commutes, lunch time, afterschool, really anytime other than the middle of the night.

During its May 3 work session, the Visalia City Council received an update on CalTrans’ plans to improve the intersection which the state’s transportation department gave its lowest grade in delays in congestion in a 2016 report. The report studied the current conditions on Highway 198 in Tulare County and said half of the interchanges would fail to provide an acceptable level of service by 2040. Lovers Lane was the only interchange already failing.

“This is probably the worst intersection in the city of Visalia,” councilmember Brian Poochigian said. “And it’s been that way since I was a kid. So, 30 plus years, it’s been a very big problem.”

CalTrans presented the council with three options to fix the problem, Alternative 1A, Alternative 1B and the “do nothing” option. Alternative 1A would widen the offramp, lanes, bike lanes and shoulders of Mineral King going across the interchange and at the intersections of Lovers Lane and Buck Road, which quickly turns into Stapp Avenue. Alternative 1B would also widen the lanes and shoulders, close off Buck Road/Stapp Ave., creating a dead-end for Mineral King, and both the on- and offramps would be widened to two lanes, making Mineral King east of Lovers Lane nothing more than extended on- and offramps with cars not stopping until they reach Lovers Lane. Traffic from Buck Road/Stapp Avenue would be rerouted to McAuliff and then Mill Creek Parkway to return to Lovers Lane and access the interchange. CalTrans said 1B would reduce congestion at the interchange and allow for better queuing for cars getting on and off the highway.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian didn’t like either option. He said moving traffic off Mineral King to Mill Creek was just changing the problem and did not want to see Mineral King closed off, as it is currently a continuous frontage road from Akers Street in Visalia to Farmersville Boulevard in Farmersville. He said he would like to see a combination of the two projects, which would leave Mineral King open until after the Tower Road interchange was completed.

“I think that’s the solution right there,” Poochigian said. “So that’s what I would be supportive of, but I like that we’re doing something.

Mayor Steve Nelsen disagreed.

“This is, pardon the expression, a cluster of an off ramp,” Nelsen said. “And to talk about the Tower [Road] interchange, if that’s done in my lifetime, that’d be a miracle.”

Instead, Nelsen said he was in favor of Alternative 1B because it created a better flow of traffic which would reduce delays and congestion. He said the change would be a learning curve for those living northeast of the interchange and will require some community education.

“I think there’s going to be some negative kickback if you close [Buck Road] off, but I think it’s a matter of an adjustment period,” Nelsen said.

Councilmember Brett Taylor asked if CalTrans had considered a three way stop at the intersection of Mineral King and Buck Road instead of a multi-million dollar renovation of the interchange.

Shavonne Conley, project design engineer with Caltrans, said having more directions of traffic controlled by stop signs would potentially increase the number of cars stacking along the offramp and back onto the freeway. Timed lights, like the traffic signals at Lovers Lane, are better at pacing vehicles coming on and off the highway.

“You really need the timed intersection that’s going to control all directions at once to really be able to control that amount of traffic based on the analysis,” Conley said.

There is a $1.1 million difference in construction costs between the projects. 1A would cost an estimated $18.5 million while 1B is estimated to cost $19.7 million. But it will take more than that to improve the interchange. Last fall, CalTrans presented a plan to widen Lovers Lane, also known as Highway 216, from Mineral King Avenue to Houston Avenue in order to improve approaches to Highway 198 off Mineral King. CalTrans is proposing a $23.9 million project to widen Lovers Lane by eight feet to accommodate a bike lane, improve right turn lanes, ADA ramps at intersections and install new sidewalks to fill in the gaps.

Rebecca Keenan, senior civil engineer with the city, said the combined cost of the “Lovers Lane Roadway Rehabilitation and Operational Improvements Project” was about $43 million, far less than the $82 to $111 million price tag originally proposed to improve the interchange in 2016. Keenan said the congestion at Lovers Lane will also be alleviated once the city develops a new interchange at Tower Road, about a mile east of Lovers Lane along the towering power lines cutting along the city’s eastern edge. In the event that doesn’t happen, there is already another exit about two miles east of Lovers Lane at Road 158, also known as the Ivanhoe exit.

“So due to the very high cost estimates, the city and Caltrans agreed to pursue an interim solution to enhance operations at this interchange,” she said.

Councilmember Greg Collins said he was concerned with closing off Buck Road because it would increase the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) for each resident in that quadrant of the city, the primary metric by which the state evaluates housing projects and climate change goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Collins said forcing residents to travel an extra two miles to the Ivanhoe exit would hamstring the city’s ability to qualify for competitive housing and climate grants or conversely avoid penalties associated with not meeting the state’s goals.

“You’re essentially forcing a neighborhood to potentially drive to the east to 156 to either go east or west using those off ramps,” he said. “That that doesn’t fit well in terms of trying to reduce vehicle miles travel.”

CalTrans said it is tentatively scheduled to select one of the alternatives next month, followed by right-of-way acquisition in spring 2023 and design in July 2023. Construction is estimated to begin in the fall of 2023 and completed by January 2025.

Hussein Senan, project manager for CalTrans, said if the project does not begin construction in 2023, it will be pushed back beyond 2025.

“I just hope we can do something permanently to fix that,” Taylor said. “It’s a really poorly planned area.”

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