The Ranchero Road Underpass project has cleared another hurdle on its way to becoming a reality, getting federal approval of its environmental impact.

The environmental document for the project, which would connect both halves of Ranchero Road beneath the BNSF railroad tracks that bisect the city, has passed muster under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But that doesn't mean the NEPA process is over.

"It's ready to put out for public comment," city spokeswoman Kim Summers said Tuesday. The proposal will be published in the Federal Register soon, which begins a 45-day public comment period.

But residents who don't routinely read the Federal Register shouldn't worry.

"We're not going to let the 45 days go by unnoticed," Summers said. "We're going to have a public meeting, probably at the library, so we can get public input."

By law, only after the NEPA process is finished can the city begin buying the right-of-way required for the underpass. And only after that process is finished can the city then go out to bid on the project.

The underpass -- which will only be the city's second east-west corridor south of Bear Valley Road -- is only the first of several improvements coming to Ranchero Road.

"We're going to start that underpass, we're going to widen Ranchero," Mayor Mike Leonard said Tuesday, "And then, of course, we want to do our interchange at the freeway."

The underpass proposal's federal stamp of approval came relatively quickly, only weeks after the California Department of Transportation approved it, after several years of consideration. But the difference is somewhat illusory, according to Summers, as the federal NEPA review occurred at Caltrans offices and many of the NEPA questions had been known by Caltrans analysts, who helped speed the project through the federal approval process.

"Most of the issues had already been worked out ahead of time," she said.

"I'm glad it's happening, not just for Hesperia, but also for the people who use it, eventually out into Apple Valley," Leonard said. "It'll pull [traffic] off of Main, and maybe even off of Bear Valley."

If there are no unpleasant surprises, the City of Hesperia could be breaking ground on the Ranchero Road Underpass in spring 2009.

"So, yeah, it's going to happen," Leonard said.

The next meeting of the Hesperia City Council will be held tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Hesperia City Hall, 9700 Seventh Avenue.

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