Lewis Griswold

They wanted a new freeway interchange but are getting the runaround

The on- and off-ramps at Paige Avenue are at capacity, but it’s unclear if a new freeway interchange will be built there.
The on- and off-ramps at Paige Avenue are at capacity, but it’s unclear if a new freeway interchange will be built there. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

Roche Oil Co. of Tulare has been a fixture at the busy Highway 99 freeway interchange at Paige Avenue for more than four decades, but an anticipated new interchange at Paige could literally be going south.

The ancient offramps and onramps are at capacity and get backed up with traffic. The Roche family believed help was on the way with a $25 million project as originally specified in Measure R, the voter-approved  1/2 -cent countywide sales tax for road projects.

But the future of improvements at Paige is now in doubt – putting the Roche family in a classic small business vs. government fight.

“We have invested in new equipment and facilities,” said Susan Roche Duyst, the company’s chief financial officer. “We want Paige to be improved like what was voted in that measure.”

The family rounded up 850 signatures for its petition urging support for Paige improvements and started the “Improve Paige Avenue in Tulare” Facebook page, she said.

The bureaucracy that doles out Measure R money is now considering a new intersection at Paige Avenue and two other sites.

Besides Paige, one option would put an interchange at Industrial Avenue, one-eighth of a mile south of Paige (and require the Paige Avenue interchange to be closed), and the other at Commercial Avenue, eight-tenths of a mile south of Paige (closure uncertain).

Any change would benefit the International Agri-Center, home of the World Ag Expo farm show. Boosters say the latter two especially would also open south Tulare to more industrial growth and help businesses already there.

The matter will be discussed Dec. 12 at the Tulare County Association of Governments meeting.

The issue is money, said the association’s executive director, Ted Smalley.

“Paige is significantly higher” to build than the alternatives, he said. That’s because costs drop if landowners donate property to a project, he said.

The Faria family is willing to donate property for either the Commercial or Industrial interchange options, said retired Tulare city manager Lynn Dredge, who is advising the family.

By contrast, there is no offer to donate property for a new Paige interchange.

Meanwhile, the Tulare City Council split 2-2 on whether to pursue interchange options south of Paige. (Mayor David Macedo abstained because he owns land in the area.)

Vice-mayor Carlton Jones said he favors Paige. Love’s Truck Stop is also there, and it’s the largest sales tax generator in the city, he said.

“I’m not going to hurt existing business to satisfy another business,” he said.

But if the council does not take an official position on an option, “absolutely it’s a legitimate concern” that a road project elsewhere in the county could be funded instead, Smalley said.

For Jerry Sinift, chief executive officer of the International Agri-Center, that is a worrisome prospect. Growth at the Agri-Center and all of south Tulare depends on a new freeway interchange, he said.

“We’ll be at 2030 before we see an opportunity again,” he said.

Supervisor Pete Vander Poel of Tulare said now is the time to act because state transportation funds are available.

“A south Tulare interchange opportunity is huge,” he said.

The solution is to build a new intersection at Commercial and keep the existing Paige intersection open by seeking a so-called “design exception” from Caltrans, which requires interchanges to be at least one mile apart, and “improve the functionality of Paige,” he said.

“I think there’s a way to have a win-win for all,” he said. “Hopefully, Caltrans could grant an exception to make it all possible.”

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold