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Maybe call it the ‘Homeless Highway’

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POSTED April 18, 2017 12:52 a.m.

It may go down as the biggest unintended consequences in Manteca history.
Back in 2010, then President Obama’s economic stimulus program was going full throttle.
San Joaquin Council of Governments staff noted there was a large chunk of federal funding tied to transportation that was going unclaimed. It specificially had to go to highway beautification projects.
Manteca happened to have a need.
For years many people — read that Manteca residents — complained about how ugly the 120 Bypass was in terms of weeds and barren ground. City leaders also worried about the type of calling card that the 120 Bypass’ lack of landscaping presented.
Manteca working with SJCOG and Caltrans came up with a “shovel ready” project that secured more than $1 million in federal economic stimulus funds for beautification of the 120 Bypass corridor and part of Highway 99 through Manteca.
The landscaping elements were picked that could be established after three years of watering. The goal was also to help keep fire hazards down while beautifying the freeway.
The burning question back then as the plantings started was: Who is going to water the shrubs and trees after three years? Then the drought hit. It started to look as though the $1 million plus worth of landscape improvements would just wither away.
Then El Nino hit. Drive down the 120 Bypass today. Shrubs and trees that looked like they were on their last legs last summer are thriving and growing. While that might seem like a good thing, take a closer look.
Manteca is unwittingly growing cover for homeless encampments.
That wasn’t the intent, of course. The landscaping is bouncing back with a vengeance and doing what the experts thought the drought-resistant plantings would do for the most part — thrive and grow in the Central Valley’s natural weather cycles.
The bypass corridor has ample setback from the shoulder to sound walls and/or fence lines. That is not the case for most freeway corridors through urban areas. While that is a blessing in many ways, it could end up being a curse between the rebounding landscape plantings and the growing homeless encampment probkem.
Caltrans can ill afford to have homeless encampments along freeway right-of-way. Besides the fact that is not what the right-of-way is designed for there is a reason why the law prohibits pedestrians from access to freeways. There is a huge safety issue involved, and it is not just for the homeless. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think what could happen if a homeless individual – with mental issues or substance abuse problems — manages to wander onto the freeway. They may not fare well but the odds are motorists won’t either. There is also the issue of debris blowing onto freeway lanes.
Caltrans last year cleared up bushes and trees along the southern slope of the 120 Bypass where it is elevated after it crosses Moffat Boulevard. The little gully between the built up embankment and the fence line had become a haven for homeless encampments. It is essentially a death trap waiting to happen.
Last July, if you will recall, a tractor trailer flipped off the Bypass and onto Van Ryn Avenue. Such an accident could happen anywhere between there and the Highway 99 south transition ramp. The area — like much of the 120 Bypass corridor — is also a fire hazard for much of the year.
Four years ago there were almost 30 fires along the Bypass that underscores what could happen if you have a fire bug. Then there is also the possibility of homeless cooking fires getting out of control.
Why this matters is simple. Fourteen years ago there was a grass fire on the southeast quadrant of the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 interchange that resulted in a death. A northbound motorist on Highway 99 became disorientated hitting a thick cloud of smoke from the fire, drove off the freeway into the burning brush, and ended up losing his wife that died in the fire when she couldn’t get out of the car.
Caltrans is getting ready to clean up its right-of-way on the west side of Highway 99 at Austin Road after making legal notifications that give the homeless a set number of days to clear out based on court rulings or have their belongings hauled away. As of Saturday, there was a tent at the base of the Austin Road overcrossing that rivaled a MASH unit in size that was surrounded by smaller tents.
Caltrans plans to clear out the shrubs — again, they were not part of the $1 million landscaping — to eliminate Autsin-99 as a place for homeless to encamp.
The problem is where do they go?
What Manteca can ill-afford is to have the 120 Bypass right-of-way end up duplicating what you can find at Stockton’s front door step between the transition lane from the Cross-Town Freeway to Interstate 5 north to the waterway inlet.
Between sweeps in Stockton you can find upwards of two dozen homeless encampments beneath the California pepper trees with nothing — not even a cyclone fence — separating them from high speed freeway traffic.
Given court rulings, the $1 million plus investment in landscaping, and the desire to upgrade the 120 Bypass looks I’m not too sure what to suggest.
One thing is for sure. The city — along with Caltrans — need to think about a solution before the Bypass morphs into the Cross-Town at Interstate 5.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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