Caltrans State Highway 74 Raised Curb Median Safety Project construction begins July 8 in Hemet

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Caltrans officials and the contractor for the State Route 74 Raised Curb Median Safety Project, including from left Jocelyn Whitfield, public information officer; Nick Trong, Caltrans resident engineer; Haissam Yahya, chief operations engineer; Terri Kassinga, Caltrans District 8 public affairs manager at podium; Michael D. Beauchamp, District 8 director; John Korb, Autobahn contractor; Matt Wind, Autobahn foreman; Kedar Sawant, design engineer and Nader Naquib, project manager, are introduced at the Caltrans open house on the median strip project at Hemet’s Simpson Center, Thursday, June 6. Tony Ault photo

Hemet city officials, businessmen and residents attended the last public meeting with Caltrans engineers and contractors who announced June 6 that they will begin construction July 8 on the $13.1 million Florida Avenue Highway 79 median strip through the city.

The Caltrans officials and engineers held the last of several public open houses on the project at the Simpson Center in Hemet designed to show the extent and need of the safety project.

The city council responded to the concerns of mainly the downtown business community, who saw that the planned Caltrans State Route 74 Raised Curb Median Safety Project which would restrict some left turns that are currently permitted on the yellow line-painted islands, as interfering with the access to their stores and shops. Other residents and the city fire and police departments also said they believed the Caltrans safety project will create even more safety problems with traffic backups and rear-end collisions. The emergency response teams also said they thought the raised curbs would restrict their efforts to get through heavy traffic during emergency runs.

City council members and some business also approached the California Office of Traffic Safety through their state legislators to halt the project when Caltrans refused. Caltrans engineers did work with the city and granted some concessions to the original plan by lengthening some left turn lanes in critical intersections, widening some of the highway to allow for safer left and right turns and installing and emergency street light controls for firetrucks and ambulances giving right of way while rushing to the scene of an emergency.

Caltrans officials at the June 6 meeting said following the Sacramento meetings, the city was told Caltrans would relinquish the highway ownership through the city, but the city would have to bear the cost for its future maintenance, takeover the median strip safety project as approved and take any liability from the state and had to make that decision before construction began. Time was not in their favor.

The project can’t be halted.

Nadar Naquib, Caltrans project manager, at the meeting said there was nothing more the city could do about halting the project once the construction begins next month.

A long aerial photo of Highway 79, that is named Florida Avenue in the Hemet city limits, with a colored outline of the median project was on display at the Simpson Center. Red, green and purple lines showed the three phases planned for the Hemet area project running from Acacia Avenue to the Ramona Expressway and Mountain Avenue in Valle Vista.

There was some satisfaction from the downtown Hemet merchants at the meeting that no medians will be constructed on the highway from Gilbert Avenue on the west to Santa Fe Street on the east.

“There was no need for the median on this stretch of the highway,” Kedar Sawamt, Caltrans design engineer for the project, said. “Some sidewalks may be set back to allow for safe right turns.”

He assured Caltrans on other portions of the highway median the curb height was downsized or given breaks to allow emergency vehicle lane crossovers near critical interchanges where traffic might be stacked up.

Naquib, Caltrans District 8 Director Michael D. Beauchamp and Caltrans Chief Operations Engineer Haissam Yahya said that the initial traffic safety survey made by the department about 2015 showed Highway 74 from Interstate 215 through Hemet and Valle Vista had an unacceptable number of fatal and serious injury traffic accidents due to lane crossovers resulting in head on collisions.

Later studies as late as what the Caltrans officials thought took place in 2014 or 2016 confirmed the lane crossovers were still happening with Caltrans safety engineers determining median strips might reduce the cross-median collisions and went to work on designs for that solution. The $13.1 million cost for the project was budgeted and is now available to complete the project that could take about a year to complete.

Hemet City Police in the meantime said they were aware of the increased median crossover collisions in 2015 and increased their traffic patrols with a significant decrease in those accidents. However, the Great Recession which occurred in the following years resulted in reducing the police department’s traffic enforcement officers until now.

Hemet argued they can do it.

The department maintained that the same enforcement program in Hemet, with the added traffic officers hired through the Measure U sales tax and returning city some gas tax funds, would do the same without a raised median strip on Florida Avenue through town.

Still, the Caltrans Highway 74 Raised Median Strip is going ahead according to Beauchamp who addressed Hemet officials and residents at the open house. Hemet Mayor Bonnie Wright and former mayor and councilman Michael Perciful said they were still not happy with the Caltrans project as planned. Perciful said the city is still convinced it could handle the project if the project funding and other state money due the city was turned over to them.

“We could do this,” he said.

Terri Kassinga, Caltrans District 8 chief of public and media affairs, started the meeting off by introducing the Caltrans staff and project contractors. First to the podium was Yahya who said they were looking forward to begin the project, but he was interrupted by a Hemet resident from the audience who said, “I’m glad you’re looking forward to it. I’m certainly not. I think it’s a travesty.” Those attending were offered time to speak to the officials about the upcoming project and have their questions answered.

Construction signs will be put up July 1.

Caltrans Resident Engineer Nick Trong, who will be in charge of the construction project, took the podium at the open house to explain when and how the project will be taking place. He said crews will start putting up warning and direction signs July 1, to announce the beginning of actual work that will begin July 8. The work will be done in phases with the first phase along the Hemet and Valle Vista portion of the highway with the widening and the necessary signal work at the intersections and widening the outside that will continue until about October. Then they will start with the curb median starting from the Ramona Expressway and working west, and the final concrete median work will likely be completed in spring 2020.

“I would ask for your patience and cooperation so that we can have a successful project, and I appreciate everyone being here tonight,” Beauchamp said.

Kassinga said in the process of the construction, Caltrans, working with the Hemet San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce, will be forming some small task forces to address any concerns and questions they may have. She said they will still be sitting down with the city’s emergency responders and the contractor to work out any contingency plans that need to be worked out in the next few weeks.

Tony Ault may be emailed at tault@reedermedia.com.