Hesperia's long-awaited new east-west corridor is a major step closer to becoming a reality.


The California Department of Transportation has signed off on the environmental impact review for the Ranchero Road Underpass project, city officials announced at Tuesday night's city council meeting.


"The city's been working on the environmental process for going on four years," Scott Priester, the city's Director of Development Services, said Wednesday. On February 28, "we received official notice from Caltrans that the Caltrans internal certification process was completed."


The proposed tunnel under the BNSF Railroad tracks at Ranchero Road would alleviate the often-heavy traffic on Main Street and provide a second east-west crossing for the city. Presently, if the Main Street Overpass get shut down by a major traffic accident, emergency response vehicles would have to drive miles out of their way to cross the railroad tracks.


As a result, the underpass project has been a major priority since before Hesperia became a city in 1988.


"Ranchero Road was supposed to do it way back when this was the county, and they never did it," Councilman Ed Pack said Wednesday.


"Our Ranchero Undercrossing Project that's been, you know, the top priority for the city for quite a number of years," Priester said.


But to get the tunnel dug, it has to go through a stringent environmental impact review first.


"We have to meet all the environmental rules of both the state of California and the federal government," Priester said. "It's a two-step process in order to comply with those."


Both state and federal officials "have to review all the technical studies in the document and say 'yes, it's adequate.' Only after that's done can it move onto the next step of the process."


The federal environmental review, NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), began the day after Caltrans signed off on the project.


"Once it's OKed, then it can be put out for the public scrutiny," Priester said.


"People laughed at the city, when they said 'Caltrans this' and 'Caltrans that,'" Pack said. "It seemed like our credibility was questioned. We're sitting there with all the money in the world and can't get approval."


City staffers hope the next step will take considerably less than four years.


"We're hoping that the NEPA process is concluded by either the end of this month or the first of next month," Priester said. "Then we will publish the document and have a hearing for people to comment on the document."


Once the NEPA review is complete, the project will get an official ruling, and the city can begin purchasing the right of way necessary to build the underpass.


"The expectation right now is early 2009, we'll out there breaking ground," Priester said. Construction is expected to take 12 to 16 months, and the underpass opening to the public in 2010 or 2011.


"The citizens of Hesperia really ought to celebrate," Pack said.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.