Jardine: Don't expect to see bypass anytime soon

June 17, 2009 

This much is certain: No matter which route transportation officials choose to build the North County Corridor expressway, somebody's going to have to move.

It will turn orchards and fields into pavement. It's going to disrupt a way of life for some families who have farmed or ranched for decades.

As Bee reporter Garth Stapley noted, some of the 300 people who attended a meeting in Riverbank this week expressed concern and even anguish as they looked over a map showing potential routes.

Concern and anguish can be good. Government should never be allowed to make decisions unchecked and unchallenged. You can't blame residents for being upset, even if it sounds a bit like the NIMBY (not in my back yard) argument. But while officials claim they'll choose the expressway route later this year, the bulldozers won't be knocking down their homes anytime soon.

We live in Stanislaus County, where building roads has proved to be an elusive if not impossible task.

The longer the wait, the more it costs. The more it costs, the greater the chance nothing will ever get built or that officials will change their minds again about where to build it.

As early as 1954 — three years before I was born — the state began discussing a new Highway 120 north of Oakdale.

In 1989, a Bee reporter wrote that "construction of a two-lane bypass that would route Oakdale traffic to the north of town is estimated at about $14 million."

Within a few years, the projected cost had soared to $64 million. And by 2003, the estimate had grown to $103 million.

Who would have benefited? Travelers heading from the Bay Area to the Sierra (leaving none of their money in Oakdale along the way) and some real estate developers.

A couple of years ago, the state scuttled the north-of- Oakdale bypass plan. County transportation officials wisely decided that an expressway north of Modesto but south of Oakdale and Riverbank would benefit the people of this county.

Building it, though, is a different issue. Local officials want to commandeer the $91 million earmarked for the Oakdale Bypass to use for the North County Corridor instead. But two failed transportation tax measures meant the loss of matching funds and added years to the project. And the state's money problems will be felt for decades.

So, all officials can do for now is plan. Let's hope the planning is better than what we saw when the Oakdale Bypass still was alive and the state ultimately wasted money acquiring land.

In 2003, I wrote about Ron and Chris Schumacher. They sold their place near Manteca to the state when it built the Highway 120 Manteca Bypass in the early 1980s. They moved to a 60-acre ranch north of Oakdale, thinking they'd never have to go through that again. Wrong.

The state's chosen route for the Oakdale Bypass ran through the Schumacher's property and smack-dab through their home. The Schumachers learned this when their bank denied a home equity line of credit because the state already had condemned their property. They said they later received a letter from the state informing them it was going to buy their land.

Had they opted to fight it in court, the Schumachers could have pioneered a new acronym: NIMB (not in my bedroom).

Instead, they sold their land to the state rather than risk having the court set the price in eminent domain proceedings. The state refused to allow them to lease back the property until construction began, Ron Schumacher told me in 2004.

The state bought other properties as well, then stopped acquiring and ditched the Oakdale Bypass plan. Ultimately, the Schumachers and others gave up their property for no reason, because county transportation officials now want the North County Corridor route.

Hopefully, that scenario won't be repeated. The state should consider buying the necessary land and then allowing sellers to rent or lease back with buy-back options should the route be changed or the project again scuttled. That way, the government pays the current market value and the farmer can continue to farm until the bulldozers are ready to move.

Officials project that the new road — 26 miles of expressway from Highway 99 in Salida to Highway 120-108 east of Oakdale — would cost about $1 billion. They also caution not to expect anything for at least 20 years.

As history suggests, 20 years easily could become 30. Thirty years could drag into 40.

And in 2054, folks could commemorate the 100th anniversary of the original Oakdale Bypass idea with cake and ice cream at yet another informational meeting about a proposed expressway.

I'll be 97. If I'm still alive, I'll try to attend.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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