North County Corridor consultant about to be dropped by officials

gstapley@modbee.comAugust 2, 2013 

— Road officials will fire the consulting firm overseeing a future expressway north of Modesto.

A half-dozen key employees of Jacobs Engineering have left the company since it was hired in 2009 to help Stanislaus County, Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale with the North County Corridor. Officials aren't comfortable with that kind of turnover.

"I don't think it's a road bump or a slowdown," said Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O'Brien, whose district includes the east end of the future expressway.

"New eyes are going to be looking at this project, no matter who we select," O'Brien said, adding that Jacobs will be invited to apply along with other firms. "It's just prudent to have the best team working on it."

The initial $5.8 million contract with Jacobs had been upped by additional work over the years to $9.4 million, including $2.2 million that Jacobs won't get for tasks yet to be accomplished.

Although the change isn't expected to delay significantly the long-awaited link from north Modesto to Highway 108 east of Oakdale, sensitive critters have.

Laws protecting salamanders and fairy shrimp require studies that could not be conducted because the past two winters have been abnormally dry, delaying key environmental reports. Officials hope to press on, however, by persuading resource agencies to accept assumptions that the species can get by on nearby land that won't be sacrificed for the road.

"You can't leave people hanging year after year," said project manager Matt Machado, who directs the county's public works.

Selecting a firm route would be helpful, say Warren Baize and Raegan Amerine, the latest on a long list of home and business owners concerned at how the expressway might affect them.

The last official word on route selection offered two options for the North County Corridor's connection with Highway 108: one near Stearns Road and the other near Wamble Road.

Some Oakdale leaders previously lobbied for the Stearns option because it would channel vehicles near a future shopping center, but that could destroy a few dozen ranchettes and Bill and Joy Bloomingcamp's bake shop and ranch.

The Wamble option could be disruptive to Burchell Nursery, an economic powerhouse with 250 seasonal employees. Scooching to the east would help the nursery — while running over the Baize and Amerine homes.

"We realize that someone will get hurt in this process," Baize said. "To minimize the impact to families and agriculture is our focus."

He still wears a cap — sold years ago at a local shop — that pokes fun at Oakdale's many decades of waiting for a bypass. Its logo reads, "Oakdale — there's no way around it."

Baize, Amerine and a few neighbors propose another option to their east, and Amerine said, "It appears we've made a favorable impression."

Machado said they are being taken seriously. "We're trying to listen to people," he said.

Past outcry pushed change

Previous outcry prompted the North County Corridor Transportation Expressway Authority to drop plans for a segment north of Modesto that might have displaced dozens of home and business owners. The expressway will end at Tully Road — recently bumped west from McHenry Avenue — and vehicles eventually will head west to Highway 99 on a beefed-up Kiernan Avenue, plans say.

Crews recently launched into a major remake of Kiernan's interchange with Highway 99, and are expected soon to widen Kiernan from two to four lanes between Morrow Road and McHenry.

A recently concluded traffic study has narrowed the expressway's scope, and Machado thinks that could result in a cost estimate lower than a previous guess of $400 million.

Local leaders persuaded state transportation officials to transfer to the North County Corridor $91 million previously promised to a Highway 120 northern Oakdale Bypass, an idea dropped years ago. None of the rest has been set aside.

Hundreds of property owners continue to wonder if they'll be spared. Oakdale Mayor Pat Paul said the wait "is so disruptive for people."

"The hardest part," agreed O'Brien, "is not knowing."

A previous schedule showed work starting in 2020 and the expressway opening to traffic in 2022.

Carrie Bowen, director of Caltrans' eight-county District 10, including Stanislaus, said she has "concerns about dropping consultants in the middle of a project." However, she said, "I think it's important to get the right project."

The North County Corridor Transportation Expressway Authority will meet at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 21 in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto, to review offers from firms interested in overseeing the project.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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