Transportation Investment spurs Downtown Turnaround

The City of Woodlake is a community of just over 7,000 residents nestled in the Sierra foothills near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Like many rural areas, the city was looking for ways to revitalize its downtown and attract businesses. But the median household income is just over $35,000 and the community is designated as “disadvantaged.” Public transit infrastructure was poor and the walkways were bad enough in some areas that pedestrians would walk in the roadway.  Making things more challenging, two state highways (State Routes 216 and 245) intersected and created an alienating–and unsafe–point of congestion in the midst of downtown.

It was difficult to know where to start.  There just was not a single program to turn to that would fix all these problems.  That is where the Tulare County Association of Governments stepped in to help. Like most councils of governments, TCAG seeks to serve its member cities and counties.  Working together, they identified a number of transportation projects–like street improvements throughout the downtown core, a transit center, and a roundabout for the state highway intersection.  that could be phased to transform the downtown.

The total cost would be over $11 million–or four times the City’s annual general fund allocation. Where could they find this kind of funding?  The staff at TCAG had some ideas, because planning, programming, and funding transportation projects is what they do.  Here is what they did: 

  • To address the state highway intersection, TCAG helped the city apply for $4.8 million in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds to partially fund a new roundabout at the intersection that would be more efficient for cars and safer for pedestrians.  The remaining funds came from Caltrans SHOPP (state highway operations and maintenance and local sales tax Measure R funds for the remainder (for which TCAG administrates according to the terms of the local initiative).
  • To make downtown streets accessible, beautiful, safe, and ADA compliant, TCAG assisted in developing a request for $3.2 million in Transportation Enhancement (TE) funding. These projects created a more pleasing entrance into the business district and convenient access to shopping, living, office, recreational destinations, and the new transit station in the downtown area. The improvements include decorative sidewalks and crosswalks, street lighting, landscaping, bicycle lanes, and bulb-outs that keep traffic at safe speeds through the downtown area. 
  • The transit center was built and funded by PTMISEA (Public Transportation, Modernization, Improvement, and Service Enhancement) in 2014 and the City is in the design phase of two additional projects totaling $2.4 million and funded by the Active Transportation Program (ATP), and Measure.

The result is a downtown that supports the economic and physical health of the community. The streets are safer and more pleasant. The new transit center has increased connectivity for the city’s disadvantaged residents to jobs and colleges in neighboring communities. Transit trips are up 26 percent. As a result, more people are walking and enjoying downtown.

The new street improvements and transit infrastructure can take at least partial credit for eight new downtown businesses—and the resulting jobs–since the improvements were completed in 2016.  Existing businesses have also expressed their satisfaction with the improvements and the impact it has had on their business. And the benefits go even deeper. Low maintenance landscaping will reduce future maintenance costs. Energy savings will be realized from the new LED lighting. And pedestrian safety was assured from improved with new warning light installations.

The conclusion here is probably not that surprising (though we think it still makes a good story).  A safe, reliable, and efficient public transportation system are important for the quality of rural life (too!).  It provides vital access for education, training, shopping, medical services, and jobs.  Woodlake’s Downtown is the economic and social engine that supports the community.  The multi-modal downtown investment resulted in measurable economic benefits.  But the community also realized less measurable social benefits from design aesthetics, improved access, and reduce emissions.  The more efficient traffic flow from the roundabouts also contributes to quality of the downtown experience.

But maybe Mayor Rudy Mendoza (and CALCOG Board member) captured the sentiment best: “If we look good, we attract business.”

Putting TCAG’s Role in Context

  • TCAG takes local government service seriously.  This article highlights TCAG’s role because our goal is to highlight how regions are helping their communities. But this project succeeded because the city and region have a good working relationship. TCAG takes its role of serving its member communities seriously.  TCAG identified different funding sources and programs, and get Woodlake into the funding queue.
  • A Good Downtown Master Plan.  The city deserves credit for vision and tenacity in pursuing funding. The city had a master downtown plan that provided a framework to seek funding. 
  • Funding expertise.TCAG assisted by applying for CMAQ funds, working with local sales tax funds, and nudging Caltrans on a SHOPP project.  Like most RTPAs, TCAG staff is very capable of landing grant funds and programming local funds to get the most out of a dollar.
  • Local Funding. And a nod to the voters of Tulare County for adopting Measure L, a self-help transportation funding measure. Measure L provided local matching dollars for federal funding.  About 35% of Measure L funds are apportioned directly to Tulare County jurisdictions for local projects.
Aerial view of new Woodlake roundabout.
The new roundabout relieves congestion at the intersection of two state highways. Note the pedestrian safety areas in the middle of the approaching roads.