Faster Route To I-5 For Fresnans

Fresno County Transportation Authority board weighing plan for a first-class surface road running west from Fresno to I-5 which could move more people per year than the bullet train on its truncated route.

The conventional wisdom is that never-ending cost overruns and never-ending management woes killed the original vision for California’s bullet train project.

But perhaps humanity’s never-ending quest for newer and better and more varied methods of transportation is equally responsible.


A recent action by the Fresno County Transportation Authority board suggests as much.

The board on Feb. 6 agreed to team with Caltrans in crafting a plan to extend Highway 180 from Mendota to Interstate 5.

To be precise, according to a report by FCTA Executive Director Mike Leonardo, the deal calls for Caltrans to “initiate a Project Initiation Document to determine the feasibility, cost, and schedule” of a two-lane highway between the two points.

Just imagine – the day might soon come when Fresno motorists could head swiftly and safely due west out town on an efficient and unbroken road to reach I-5, then take that wide and well-maintained interstate highway to places throughout our fair state. No more trips north on Highway 99 to Highway 152, then west through Los Banos, to get to I-5.

Unless of course, that is your preference. But the key here is the possible expansion of route options.

Let’s get some context.

The FCTA board oversees the spending of Measure C funds, Fresno County’s venerable half-cent sales tax for transportation projects of many kinds.

According to Leonardo’s report, FCTA officials and local transportation advocates in 2006 identified an extension of 180 to the west as pivotal to improving east-west circulation across the county.

We all know how important the extension of 180 to the east has been to the growth of Fresno (and Clovis, to a degree) in that direction. Measure C money has been invaluable in this regard.

The idea is to do something just as revolutionary in the opposite direction, to the west and I-5. A Caltrans report in 2013 considered a four-lane expressway. Alternatives were considered, as well.

According to Leonardo’s report, Caltrans decided the best route would be the current 180 alignment from Fresno to Kerman “with some minor realignments near Kerman to bypass the urbanizing area of that community, and a bypass of Mendota.”

Highway 180, also called Whitesbridge Avenue, currently goes as far as Mendota. That’s a drive from Fresno of about 35 miles.

How to get from Mendota to I-5?

Leonardo’s report says: “From Mendota to Interstate 5, the (Caltrans) Study Report selected a preferred alternative that followed the Shields Avenue alignment. This alignment was selected after considerable outreach to the westside communities.”

The California Transportation Commission has given its blessing to this vision.

It turns out that the 180 extension to I-5 is, according to Leonardo’s report, “the last remaining Rural Tier 1 project that has not yet received Measure C funding. The other Rural Tier 1 projects are either complete, or are in the environmental, design, right of way or construction phases.”

Leonardo’s report goes on to say, “It appears that there may be sufficient Measure C funds to build a 40’ wide two-lane conventional highway along the Shields Avenue alignment that could be dedicated to Caltrans as SR 180. This two-lane conventional highway would be compatible with any future widening or upgrading as contemplated in the Route Adoption Report.”

Leonardo’s report says there are advantages and disadvantages to the Shields Avenue alignment: “Shields is an existing 32’ paved county road between Fairfax Avenue and Interstate 5 (approximately 9 miles). There is an existing interchange on Interstate 5 at Shields. At Fairfax and SR 33 north of Mendota (approximately 9 miles), Shields is only a line on a map. Fresno County has dedicated road easements for part of the distance, but the remainder is private farm property.”

The San Joaquin Valley Railroad operates a nearby line, Leonardo’s report says, which could complicate matters. Getting a handle on this and a multitude of other issues is the goal of Caltrans’ Project Initiation Document. This document is expected to cost $300,000 and take nine months to complete.

If Caltrans comes back with a favorable prognosis from a feasibility and funding angle, Leonardo’s report says, “the next step would be to authorize Caltrans to begin environmental studies and preliminary engineering for a build project.”

How fascinating! Quietly and methodically, our transportation experts in Fresno County continue to dream up new ways for us to get from Point A to Point B. More often than not, those dreams come true. This process never stops.

Then came the bullet train (not a local idea). The bullet train’s original vision, extending from the Bay Area, through the Central Valley and far into Southern California, almost certainly would have cost well north of $100 billion and been completed (at best) in mid-century. The vision has now been reduced by Gov. Newsom to a line covering the 160 miles between Merced and Bakersfield. Even this dramatically smaller vision will have a bill running into the billions.

My prediction: A first-class surface road running due west from Fresno to I-5 will move more people per year than the bullet train on its truncated route.

Granted, the proposed 180 extension runs east-west while the bullet train line runs north-south. But humanity’s genius in transportation matters can handle north-south challenges, as well.

  1. “The conventional wisdom is that never-ending cost overruns and never-ending management woes killed the original vision for California’s bullet train project.”

    I would say that never-ending foot dragging by California Republicans did the trick more than anything.

    “But perhaps humanity’s never-ending quest for newer and better and more varied methods of transportation is equally responsible.”

    I know you finally addressed it in your close, but an East/West automobile road is neither a “newer and better” nor a “more varied” method of transportation than North/South high-speed rail here in California. Other countries are able to accomplish feats such as high-speed rail because they all pull on the same end of the rope. Here in America (including California), any idea thought of as progressive is immediately fought by the Grand Old Party. You’ll find evidence of this with the ACA. It’s hard enough getting healthcare to a wider group of people, but it’s darn near impossible when half of your elected officials are actively working against it.

    What would really be more beneficial to us here in the Central Valley though, would be to extend the existing slow-speed rail line up and over the Grapevine. It’s ridiculous that you have to take Amtrak to Bakersfield, get on a bus, take said bus over the Grapevine, and then get back on a train to get to your SoCal destination. We finished the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 over much rougher terrain than the Grapevine. This should be the first order of any transit infrastructure planning.

  2. What!, a new road being connected to thousands of miles of highway able to carry more travelers than a two city HSR starter stub. Who would have thought?

    A better apples to apples comparison: those travelers moving between Merced and Bakersfield at 2:1 speeds.

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