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A downtown Manteca city hall would jeopardize public safety
city hall taco bell
Manteca’s current city hall employs brown slumpstone with roof lines that prompted Councilwoman Debby Moorhead to remark earlier this year that the Civic Center reminded her of 1970s architecture employed by Taco Bell.

Tonight the Manteca City Council members will be hunkered down in their individual homes connected by Zoom along with department heads that will be social distancing in the council chambers that have been doing double duty for the past 45 days as the local emergency operations center for the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are essentially sequestered from their constituents who cannot provide real-time feedback.

Perhaps that is a good thing. At least no one can call them on the carpet in real time during public comments via livestreaming or over Comcast Channel 97 for their failure to connect the dots on actions they are taking as elected leaders or as senior staff.

The last item on tonight’s agenda is to discuss possibly seeking a proposal for firms on how best the city can go about securing grade separations by either going under or over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks that slice through the heart of Manteca.

While there are two rail lines with 14 crossings, the one that matters the most is the Fresno Line with 11 crossings between Austin Road and Airport Way. There are now 20 trains running daily through Manteca on that line that can be as long as 8,000 feet apiece. That number is expected to increase to 135 trains a day in the coming years between projections made by Union Pacific and the Altamont Corridor Express.

Keep this in mind while we talk about the council’s growing desire to relocate the sprawling Civic Center campus at 1001 W. Center St. that looks as if it were inspired by 1970s-era Taco Bell architecture.

The majority of the council has made comments to the effect they would like to relocate city hall complete with the police department and presumably an emergency operations center to either Library Park or the site that Mayor Ben Cantu has long advocated on a vacant parcel where the former Manteca Bean Co. once stood plus ground now occupied by the Hospice Hope Chest thrift store and the adjoining Kelly-Moore paint store across from the Manteca Transit Center.

So here is the $40 million (the ballpark figure for a City Hall that makes an architectural statement) question: How are a new city hall location, 135 daily trains, the Manteca Police station, and the local emergency operations center connected?

It’s because the clearly preferred downtown locations would put a new city hall that would also serve as the new police headquarters as well as have an emergency operations center clearly within the danger zone of what is the most likely serious emergency to occur and do so with potential frequency — a major train derailment.

Let’s be clear on what rumbles though Manteca daily on the tracks. There are tankers filled with all sorts of hazardous chemicals that besides being toxic can also be combustible. Then there are oil tankers including trains that are 100 percent oil tankers that carry crude from oil fields in the southern San Joaquin Valley through Manteca heading  to refineries. Those truck trailers on flatcars as well as freight cars can also carry items that could be more than problematic if a major derailments turns rolling stock into missiles for short distances.

There was a major train derailment involved chemical tankers that left the tracks just over 30 years ago between Main Street and what is now Industrial Park Drive that turns into Spreckels Avenue once it meets up with Moffat Boulevard.

The situation was “touch and go” for hours and took days to clean up. There were about 1,000 people evacuated back when the city had 40,000 less residents.

The sight Council Gary Singh believes is ideal — Library Park — is so close to the railroad tracks you can almost spit on passing trains.

Cantu’s long-time favorite is not much farther away from rails that carrying tons of metal, chemicals, oil, and other goods through Manteca often at speeds in excess of 50 mph.

If either location is pursued, and the most likely disaster occurs, Manteca could be forced to abandon not just city hall but also the police station and the emergency operations center during the duration of the emergency.

And as a practical day-to-day matter, do you really want the police station between a half a block and two and a half blocks from where the city’s two most congested streets meet?

Currently if additional units are needed by pulling officers away from the Center Street police station and assuming a train isn’t blocking crossings, they can reach an urgent situation east of downtown by bypassing it to the north on residential streets.

The current location doesn’t impede backup from the station to points south of the tracks. Not only do both proposed city hall/police station locations in downtown have impediments from heavy traffic at various times during the day but the 20 trains that now pass through Manteca that the city is preparing for that number to eventually increase to 135 would create a solid rolling barrier to reduce backup response times, but there would still be issues battling traffic to head both east and north.

The sentiment for bringing City Hall downtown is misplaced. Trying to bring back some resemblance of the days when downtown was a Central Valley version of a trade center such as Mayberry was on the Andy Griffith Show does so at the expense of ignoring today’s realties and the changing times ahead as Manteca rapidly grows toward the 120,000 population mark.

You could make a case that a separated crossing in a strategic location should happen way ahead of a new city hall being built.

Road projects and government facilities — at least for 40 percent of their costs that are assigned to growth — are financed by different fees that can’t legally be mingled. That’s not the case for the remaining 60 percent for the $13.8 million city leaders hope to generate with a one cent on the dollar increased sales tax they are now considering asking voters to bless.

Manteca’s residents would be better served if the city stayed put at 1001 W. Center St. and added on to the Civic Center using a minimalist approach for architecture and re-purpose existing space. You could easily employ concrete tilt-up structures painted to augment the Taco Bell architecture while concentrating on work space that is needed for a functional and efficient growing 21st century city.

As far as recreational facilities, work to get rid of the biases and quadruple down on efforts to work with the school district to maximize facilities.

The reality is we have a lot of needs and desires and aren’t that filthy rich. And that isn’t considering existing facilities and streets that need money poured into them for ongoing upkeep as years of use wears everything down.

Whether the current or future councils agree isn’t as important as not making decisions that jeopardize public safety.

It’s clear that moving the city hall, police station and emergency operations downtown jeopardizes public safety not just in the most likely disaster as a train derailment but for the most effective every day emergency responses.