Growing Pains: Thirty Years in the History of Davis

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Chapter 8 - Tales of an Overpass, Underpass and Interchange

As the 1980s drew to a close, Davis found itself searching for ways to end a triology of long-running political dramas about a freeway interchange, overpass and railroad underpass.

A climax was approaching in the city's long-standing legal battle over an interchange the federal government wanted to build on Interstate 80 several miles west of Davis. Also headed for a showdown was an emotional, occasionally hostile debate over where the city should build a new overpass across Interstate 80. And, a day of reckoning was approaching for the city's plans to widen the underpass that takes Richards Boulevard beneath the Southern Pacific railroad tracks.

Normally, controversies over interchanges, overpasses and underpasses would at most merit passing mention in a community's history. After all, few communities can imagine taking 35 years to debate the need for widening a railroad underpass. Seldom does a city fight a proposed freeway interchange in the courts for 17 years, particularly when the location is more than a mile outside of the city limits and in another county. Few cities would debate where a new freeway overpass should be built for several years, then have the electorate decide the location.

In all three cases, though, the debates exposed underlying anxieties about the future of Davis. The courtroom combat over the Kidwell Interchange illuminated how deeply Davis feared runaway growth, and how far it was willing to go to fight it. The Richards underpass battle illlustrated how much Davis residents worried about losing their community's small-town character and old-fashioned, pedestrian-oriented downtown. The fight over whether to build a new overpass at Pole Line Road or County Road 103 turned into a tug of war between neighborhoods with competing interests, one impatient to get more convenient, safer access to the rest of town, the other worried that a new overpass would flood its streets with fast-moving motorists. Looming in the background was apprehension over how building an overpass at Road 103 might influence the city's dealings with Frank Ramos, the West Sacramento developer who wanted to build housing, a shopping center, and business park on more than 500 acres located at the eastern edge of Davis.

Initially known as the Davis Subway, the Richards underpass was built in 1917, as part of State Route 6, one of the first roads in the state highway system. Funding came from California's first highway bond act, the State Highway Act of 1909.

The State Highway Commission, the agency set up to administer the act, established as one of its priorities eliminating dangerous at-grade intersections where state highways crossed railroad tracks. Davis was a natural candidate for an underpass when the highway came to town, because it was located at the junction of two major interregional railroad lines that on a typical day brought about 64 trains through town. During the debate over where the underpass should be built, local merchants tended to favor a site that would bring traffic into the downtown business district, highway commissioners favored a less congested route and the Southern Pacific Co. wanted a crossing that would go under as few tracks as possible. The commission and railroad agreed on a location about 900 feet west of the city's railway station. At that location, the railroad had only two tracks and the underpass would link up with the city's existing roadway grid at First and E streets.

By the late 1930s, highway officials were looking for a better route. Route 6 took several twists and turns within the city limits, creating bottlenecks for high-speed traffic. Final plans were completed in 1942 for a four-lane divided highway just south of Davis that would become Highway 40 and later Interstate 80. By1956, city officials already were questioning whether the underpass was inadequate for the city's needs. Only 24 feet wide, it was too small by modern roadway standards to accommodate two lanes of traffic and pedestrians and did not align well with the city's street grid.

By 1961, city leaders were convinced the underpass would have to be widened. They studied several options, deciding to restrict E and F streets to one-way traffic. E Street was to take southbound traffic through the existing tunnel. A second tunnel was to be built to the east for northbound traffic on F Street. A 1961 blueprint for development of the downtown area projected the project would be completed sometime between 1968 and 1973. The estimated cost was $721,000, and city officials expected the state and Southern Pacific Railroad would pick up 60 percent of the tab. The other 40 percent was to come from general-obligation bonds and gas tax funds. [1]

Thirty-five years later, the underpass still had only two lanes. The population of Davis had grown from about 9,000 residents to more than 50,000. The city had a new plan for widening the underpass on the books, and the estimated price tag had jumped to more than $7.5 million. And, a lively, sometimes heated debate was taking place over whether the city really even needed to widen the underpass.

City voters hadn't shown much enthusiasm for widening the underpass over the years. The underpass remained at two lanes because on several occasions city voters denied the project funding. Doubts about the need for the project was one reason. Misgivings about the cost was another. As the years passed, though, a third reason become more conspicuous. The Richards underpass became a symbol of the community's small-town atmosphere, and opponents argued the underpass wouldn't need to be widened if the city resisted the devotion to automobile travel and rampant growth that afflicted so many communities. To advocates of widening the underpass, the issue seemed simple. The underpass was overloaded with traffic, and the only effective way to handle the problem was to add more lanes.

The issue went before the voters in 1968, but they didn't get a chance to render a definitive verdict. The underpass was packaged together with four other projects in Proposition 2, and voters had to either accept or reject the entire package. They rejected it, casting 2,228 votes for the package and 2,672 against it. Proposition 1, a $2 million measure to finance a Veterens' Memorial Center, lost by an even bigger measure. "Most observers saw the election returns as results of a heavy tax burden placed on Davis property owners within the last year," The Enterprise explained in the aftermath of the election, noting that local, state and federal taxes appeared to be on the rise. [2]

Plans for widening the overpass returned to the voters in 1973, and this time it was on the ballot by itself. The council tackled the issue early in the year, hearing suggestions ranging from turning the underpass into a four-lane expressway to shutting down the underpass altogether and letting traffic find other ways into town. Most speakers who addressed the council found middle ground, arguing the underpass should be improved, but not turned into a four-lane expressway. A majority of the council came away from the debate unconvinced a four-lane underpass was needed, indicating the top priority was providing a way to separate bicyclists from motorists. Councilman Bob Black spearheaded a group known as Citizens for a Reasonable Alternative for Richards Boulevard that lobbied for keeping two traffic lanes, but improving bicycle pedestrian access.

In November 1973, city voters got to have their say. The ballot measure facing them estimated the cost of widening the underpass to provide four lanes for automobile traffic and lanes on both sides for bicyclists at about $1.1 million, but by the time of the election, the projected price tag was only about $360,000, in large part because of increased commitment to the project by state officials. Nonetheless, the voters rejected the project by almost a 2-1 margin.

Fifteen years later, the project was back for another try. In 1987, the Public Facilities Bond Issue Task Force recommended asking the voters for $3.7 million to widen the underpass and make other improvements there. Measure U, a plan for selling up to $7 million for underpass improvements, went before the voters in November 1988. Supporters included Mayor Mike Corbett, who argued a wider underpass would be safer, more convenient and more attractive, and thereby help ensure the vitality of the downtown area while improving linkages between South Davis and the rest of the community. Opponents said the project was unnecessary and expensive and wouldn't provide more safety for bicyclists. Almost 60 percent of the voters favored Measure U, but it failed to gain the two-thirds vote it needed.

City voters got another chance to vote on the question on March 4, 1997 after the City Council decided in August 1996 to replace the existing two-lane underpass with a new 100-foot wide, four-lane structure. Opponents sponsored Measure E, a referendum to let the voters settle the issue again . "In 1988, Davis citizens saved Central Park from being paved over by the city. Keeping our downtown pedestrian-friendly is equally vital if Davis is to maintain its community feel," opponents of widening Richards said in their campaign literature. "A four-lane truck route and 9,000 more car trips daily will forever change our city center, which is one of the last remaining true downtowns in California." They also challenged the need to spend $9 million on the project, saying several low-cost alternatives were available for easing traffic congestion at Richards.

Supporters of the city's plans argued Richards should have been widened long ago to end traffic congestion there and improve the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians in the area. ``It's time to make common-sense improvements to the Richards undercrossing which will protect public safety and provide convenient access to the downtown and university," Mayor Lois Wolk said in a campaign brochure. "It's time to bring our neighborhoods together and put an end to the politics of division."

Once again, though, local voters were in no mood to widen the underpass. About 56 percent voted against Measure E, thereby overturning the council's decision to proceed with the project.

During the 1980s, two 15-foot-high earthen mounds astride Interstate 80 and a barely discernible opening in the chain-link fence that ran along the north side of the freeway were the most visible symbols of the court battle over the proposed Kidwell Interchange. The state built the mounds to support the interchange's superstructure, but had to halt construction after the city of Davis won an early skirmish in the court battle. The opening in the fence was a powerful symbol to the interchange's supporters. The opening and a two-lane road that ran to the northwest provided the only automobile access to rural houses located north of the freeway. Federal highway officials had promised a freeway interchange, and nearby residents were anxious for the access it would provide. Frustration mounted as year after year passed, and the debate over the proposed interchange continued, with no end in sight.

The fight began in the fall of 1972, two years after the state and Solano County decided to build a freeway interchange near Putah Creek just west of the Solano-Yolo county line. Over the course of several weeks, the Davis City Council held a series of executive sessions to discuss plans for the interchange and an industrial park proposed for 150 acres nearby, just across the county line in Solano County. Another 350 acres appeared to be a prime candidate for industrial development. Council members worried the interchange would encourage development of nearby farmlands, and would be a curse for Davis because industrial parks near the interchange would not contribute to city tax coffers, but many employees would live in Davis. At a special meeting in October, council members voted to fight the plans, hiring David E. Pesonen, an environmental attorney noted for handling big Sierra Club cases.

In a lawsuit filed in federal district court, Pesonen sought to block construction of the interchange, charging federal and state officials with surreptitiously adding the interchange to their blueprints for widening the freeway and failing to draft a environmental impact report on the interchange and proposed industrial parks. He argued the two were linked inexorably, because the latter could not be built without the interchange.

The city's actions angered Solano County officials, who threatened to file a counter suit. Instead, they joined in fighting the city's suit. Attorneys for Solano County also blasted city officials, saying they were trying to block industrial development near the interchange to protect an industrial park proposed for 25 acres within the city limits of Davis. Dixon officials favored the interchange, seeing it as a means for removing truck traffic from the heart of their town. Highway 113 went through the center of Dixon, but could be rerouted east of town if the interchange were built.

In court, attorneys for Davis charged state and federal highway officials with violating environmental laws by not holding adequate public hearings before proceeding with the interchange. In response, state and federal attorneys argued the proposed interchange was discussed at public meetings in Fairfield and the city of Davis had been sent a copy of a notice indicating that no potential impacts had been identified to trigger the need for a full EIR. Government attorneys maintained the industrial park proposals were outside the scope of the interchange's environmental studies, arguing that potential environmental impacts from industrial projects would be analyzed separately by Solano County and the the interchange was needed to give nearby farmers continued freeway access. At the time, farmers could drive directly onto an old stretch of U.S. 40, the predecessor of Interstate 80. Blueprints for the new section of Interstate 80 called for building the interchange so farmers would continue to have easy access. Government attorneys also disputed the notion the interchange was being built to serve industry, saying the interchange was on the drawing boards at least as early as 1963.

In November 1972, Judge Philip C. Wilkins denied the city's reqest for a temporary restraining order to halt construction until he could rule on the merits of the case, but also cautioned the government's contractor against trying to outmaneuver the city by building the project before the court case could be settled, saying he would weigh any move to do so against the defense. In April, though, Wilkins issued a temporary restraining order after learning work was proceeding on the interchange despite the informal agreement not to proceed until the case was settled.

Later that month, the judge dealt Davis a setback, ruling the city could contest the interchange if it endangered the city's water supply or threatened the city's ability to serve residents in some other way, but could not challenge the sovereignty of the state and federal governments because of growth-control objectives or other grounds aimed at generally protecting the health and welfare of its residents.. Davis Mayor Maynard Skinner and council members Bob Black, Joan Poulos and Richard Holdstock responded by announcing their intention as individuals to join the city in pursuing the lawsuit. Davis also presented a water expert who testified industrial projects near the interchange could threaten the city's water supply, saying urbanization already was largely to blame for lowering the city's water table as much as 24 feet between 1958 and 1968.

Davis won a couple of skirmishes during May, but also suffered a significant defeat. First, Wilkins ruled the state would have to halt construction until it held public hearings on potential environmental impacts from the design of the interchange. Second, he rejected a compromise plan that would have allowed the state to do some construction work before completing the hearings. He agreed with government attorneys, however, that a full EIR need not be prepared on the interchange.

State highway offcials proceeded to hold public hearings in Dixon and Davis. Held in October 1973, the Davis hearing gave city officials another chance to argue an EIR was needed. City Associate Planner Mike Pope told the hearing Solano would get the tax benefits of industrial development and Davis would get pollution, more people and added demands for city services.

With the hearings out of the way, state and federal officials returned to court, convincing Wilkins in May 1974 to lift his ban on construction of the $480,000 interchange. The decision disappointed Davis officials, who complained the hearings were a sham. The city appealed the judge's ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, in July 1975, won a key victory when the appellate court ruled highway officials should prepare an EIR and hold new hearings. The decision halted the project for years. In 1981, for example, the California Department of Transportation announced it had decided to built a frontage road to give nearby farmers freeway access through the Pedrick Road Interchange west of Kidwell.

By the following year, though, pressure for the overpass was mounting again. The federal government wanted Caltrans to close the hole in the fence along the north side of Interstate 80. Nearby farmers and Solano County implored Caltrans to provide the interchange it had promised. When a draft EIR was ready for review in the summer of 1984, Davis found itself alone in its opposition. Among the project's supporters were Dixon, Solano County and area residents. By then, several landowners had filed suit against the state for failing to provide the interchange, and were seeking millions of dollars in damages.

Davis was not ready to give up its lonely battle yet, though. City officials challenged the EIR in the courts, saying it offered an inadequate appraisal of the interchange's potential growth impacts. In 1988, the city won a major victory when U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled Caltrans still had not handled the growth-impact issue adequately.

In May of the following year, the quarrel came to an abrupt end when city and Caltrans announced a settlement of their differences. The city agreed to drop its lawsuit. In return, Caltrans promised a minimum of $6 million in state highway funds for improving the Richards and Mace Boulevard interchanges. Davis officials regarded the settlement as a major victory, knowing that Caltrans ultimately could have cleared the way for construction of the Kidwell Interchange by preparing an adequate EIR.

Officials in Solano County had mixed feelings about the settlement. They were glad the interchange finally could be built, but the controversy left a bad taste in their mouths, because they still blamed Davis for meddling in their affairs and charged it with blackmailing Caltrans into providing the $6 million in highway funds.

The debate over where to build a new overpass across Interstate 80 wasn't an epic struggle over growth control, like the Kidwell battle. Or a fight to help preserve the city's small-town character of Davis, as opponents saw their crusade against widening the Richards underpass. Almost everyone agreed the city needed a new freeway overpass. The controversial question was where it should be built.

The Pole Line debate didn't go on as long as Kidwell or Richards, but it lasted almost a decade, and left the commmunity badly divided. In many ways, it was a classical political struggle of competing interests that pitted one neighborhood against another. East Davis residents who lived near Pole Line typically favored Road 103, fearing that building the overpass at Pole Line would flood their neighborhood with traffic. South Davis residents tended to favor Pole Line, arguing an overpass there would disrupt existing neighborhoods south of the freeway less, be more convenient and cost less to build.

Pole Line also was a classical example of how debates can be reshaped by other, more compelling political forces. Like Richards and Kidwell, Pole Line became more than a debate over traffic circulation, safety and construction costs. If an overpass was built at Road 103, connecting roads on the north side of the freeway would traverse the more than 500 acres of undeveloped land controlled by Ramos. As the debate unfolded, opponents feared that building the overpass at Road 103 would give Ramos extra leverage in his fight to develop his land despite strong city opposition. The developer's plans also figured prominently in the debate over a 1988 initiative that sought to overturn the city's decision to build the overpass at Pole Line. By then, city officials and Ramos had worked out a detailed development agreement spelled out in the East Davis Specific Plan. The initiative's bid to switch overpass sites worried opponents because it would require major changes to the specific plan and could convince Ramos to once again ask Yolo County officials to approve his plans, rather than continue working with the city.

As early as 1959, Yolo County's master plan for the Davis area assumed a freeway interchange could be needed someday at County Road 103. The city, though, didn't give the notion much thought until two decades later. Initially, city officials also favored Road 103. It was the location selected in 1982 when the City Council placed an Interstate 80 overcrossing among the priority projects in the city's Transportation Improvement Program.

The debate over where to build the overpass began to gather momentum in 1984. DKS Associates, a consulting firm hired by the city, recommended Pole Line. Road 103 won the endorsement of the Ad Hoc South Davis Traffic Study Committee in December 1984 and later got backing from the Planning Commission and Safety Advisory Commission. In February 1985, the City Council added its voice to the debate, voting unanimously in favor of Pole Line.

The council vote didn't stop the debate. Later in 1985, the Planning Commission decided to cast its lot in favor of the Harrison site, a third option just east of Pole Line that also drew support from the city Public Works Department. Council members reconsidered the issue the following year, pondering whether an overpass would be adequate or the city needed a full interchange with freeway on-ramps and off-ramps. An interchange was an option at Road 103, but not at Pole Line because it was too close to the existing interchange at Richards.

While the city worked to revise its General Plan during 1987, Road 103 was endorsed as the best alternative by several city departments: Community Development, Public Works, Police and Fire. The council left the issue up in the air later that year when it adopted a long-term development plan for South Davis, telling staff to look at alternative sites for an overpass in a supplemental environmental impact report. Twice during 1987, the Planning Commission voted in favor of Road 103, once when it approved the South Davis development plans, the second time when it gave its stamp of approval of the new Davis General Plan. On Dec. 23, 1987, council members adopted the new General Plan, voting 3-2 to place a a four-lane overcrossing at Pole Line.

The debate wasn't over yet, though. The following July, an initiative organized by a group that called itself Friends of Pole Line Road qualified for the November 1987 ballot. It asked city voters to overturn the council's decision to build the overpass at Pole Line and rule it should be built in the vicinity of Road 103. It argued an overpass at Pole Line would flood the surrounding neighborhood with extra traffic and said an overpass at Road 103 offered several advantages. The Pole Line neighborhood would be spared. A Road 103 overpass could be built upon undeveloped land north of the freeway, thus allowing the city to protect other neighborhoods in East Davis from harm. It would be cheaper to build. It would provide better traffic circulation between South Davis and the rest of town than a Pole Line overpass could and would do more to relieve congestion at the Richards and Mace freeway interchanges. A Road 103 overpass potentially could be converted into a full interchange someday if necessary.

Of course, the initiative's critics did not buy those arguments. "Say no to needless high costs with no benefits, to less safety, continued congestion, and short-sighted planning that risks irreplaceable community values," said Mayor Mike Corbett and four others who signed the ballot argument against Measure X. It argued Pole Line would be the safer, more convenient location and actually would be less expensive because the city likely would need a separate $2 million bicycle overpass if the automobile overpass was moved to Road 103. Measure X opponents also argued the initiative could drive Ramos back into the arms of the county. "If Ramos is forced back into the county, the city will have no planning or phasing control over his project," they argued in a campaign flyer. "In addition, the city will receive no development fees in order to help pay for an I-80 overcrossing and improvements at the Mace Boulevard Interchange."

The anti-Measure X argument emphasized the council chose Pole Line after three years of intensive study and public input. Pole Line was backed by the committee that drew up the East Davis Specific Plan, as well as the Police Department and DKS Associates. Supporters of Measure X also had experts in their corner: the Planning Commission, Safety Advisory Commission, Public Works Department and Community Development Department. On Nov. 8, 1988, city voters had their say, sending Measure X down to defeat by 260 votes, thereby leaving the overpass at Pole Line.

Despite the vote, the debate still was destined to take several more twists and turns. In 1990, council members briefly reconsidered where to build the overpass after learning that traffic projections provided by a consultant contained major errors. They decided to move forward, however, concluding that earlier decisions locked the city into Pole Line. Two years later, staff confirmed the council's conclusion, declaring that Road 103, now named Drummond Avenue, was no longer a realistic option because changing course would be expensive and time-consuming.

By 1992, Pole Line was the clear winner in the site-selection sweepstakes. Other questions remained. For South Davis activists, the lingering question was how soon the overpass would be built. Eager to have another route across the freeway, they wanted it as soon as possible. A new overpass would help relieve congestion at the existing interchanges and provide a safe route for bicyclists. Upset by the City Council's decision in Jan. 1992 to order a full EIR on the overcrossing, a South Davis citizens group sued the city, hoping to halt the environmental review and speed up construction of the overpass. They lost their bid in April of the following year, when Judge W. Arvid Johnson ruled in favor of the city, allowing environmental study of the overpass to continue.

Pole Line residents had no choice but to concede defeat in the fight to keep the overpass away from their neighborhood, but they still had other battles to wage. Some details hadn't been settled, the main lingering question being whether the overpass should have two or four lanes. Pole Line residents insisted the overpass should have only two lanes of traffic, and were counting on the city to find other ways to protect their neighborhood from the extra automobiles the overpass would bring. Adding to their sense of urgency was the news that the traffic study flaws had caused the city to underestimate the amount of traffic that could flood their neighborhood.

Beginning in May 1993, citizens from all over Davis met several times to hash out overpass details, including how many lanes it should have. They put forward two altneratives: building a two-lane overpass or building an overpass with room to eventually have four lanes, but striping it for only two traffic lanes. City staff disagreed. In its report on the issue, staff advocated the four-lane overpass called for in the 1987 Davis General Plan, saying it was needed to handle projected traffic volumes. In July 1993, the Long Range Planning Commission sided with the citizen group, arguing for an overpass with two lanes of traffic. Later the same month, council members adopted a compromise plan, approving an overpass wide enough for four lanes, but striped for only two.

Slowly, but surely, the debate was nearing an end. In March 1995, the council approved a $1.4 million package of sound walls and other projects aimed at protecting the Pole Line neighborhood from noise and traffic problems. On May 7, 1995, city officials broke ground for the $6.9 million overcrossing. And on Aug. 28, 1996, the overcrossing was ready for traffic, and the city could finally lay another of its long-running traffic controversies to rest.

Continue to Chapter 9...