Bee Investigator

Bee Investigator: Upcoming Bird Road-Highway 132 overpass to nowhere actually does make sense

snowicki@modbee.comDecember 22, 2013 

— Call it the overpass to nowhere.

Dan Lenkeit of Modesto wrote to ask about a new overpass under construction on Highway 132 about a mile west of Interstate 5 and before 132 connects with Interstate 580.

“It appears to provide access to Bird Road, leading south to a gravel quarry and north to farm country,” Dan said. “What gives? Is it part of a larger project linking 132 to I-5/I-580?”

Nope. It was built merely to allow the heavy, slow gravel trucks an easier way to merge east or west onto 132 so that other vehicles traveling 55 mph — OK, let’s be honest and say more like 60 or 65 mph — won’t have to slam on their brakes or, worse, slam into the trucks in a catastrophic accident.

You mean this $10.5 million project is not going to make the commute to and from the Bay Area less congested or faster? It wasn’t done to improve the pavement on 132? It basically benefits only the gravel companies?

You got it. But before you scream about taxpayers footing the bill for big business, let me caution you to read to the end. I think you’ll be surprised. I sure was.

Here’s the scoop:

I first contacted the California Department of Transportation. A spokeswoman said, “The project building the new interchange on State Route 132 is called the Bird Road Interchange Project. The lead agency of the $10.5 million project is San Joaquin County.”

She told me to call the San Joaquin County Public Works for more information, “since they are the lead agency.”

I did. Mike Selling, deputy director of engineering for the department, said, “This is kind of a unique project.”

I guess so. If there’s been another highway overpass built to accommodate a single type of business, I haven’t heard about it. Just think about it: An overpass leading only to the Boeing complex in Seattle? One in Southern California dedicated just to Disneyland traffic? Perhaps one in Kingsburg for the Swedish smorgasbord? I don’t think so.

But Selling explained further: “There are several gravel quarries south of 132, with the (previous) existing condition being an at-grade intersection. So these gravel trucks come out and they’re heavy and slow-moving. You get fog out there in the winter. It’s a situation that has the potential for bad accidents.”

So when four more quarries wanted to join the two already out there, San Joaquin County added a condition to their permits: When gravel truck traffic reached a certain threshold, the companies would have to come up with a plan to improve the interchange and make it safer.

With the new companies up and running, “We told them, ‘OK, we have to get a plan going and get this interchange constructed’,” Selling said.

It wasn’t an easy project to get going, he added. “I’ve been on it for 10 years, and I think it started four years before me, so it’s been in the works for a long time.” he said.

For one thing, the companies “are highly competitive and there was a lot of concern from each of them that someone else might pay less than their fair share,” he said. Adding to the problem was that all of the companies’ information is “proprietary,” or private, so the county was involved in delicate negotiations as to who could see the gravel companies’ financial information used to set those “fair shares” in the various agreements with the county and Caltrans.

“It’s been a long haul,” said Selling, with no trace of humor at the unintended pun.

Here’s the good and unexpected news: “There’s no taxpayer dollars on this project.”

Really?

It’s true, he said. The county helped facilitate 20-year-loans with two local banks. Those loans will be repaid by the gravel companies, not taxpayers.

At least one of the companies was pleased with the project. Of the six bids received, three of them were from the large construction companies that own three of the gravel companies. One won the contract: Knife River Construction, which has an office in Stockton. The company will still pay its fair share of the loan for the work, but it obviously will be offset by the income from the job.

The work began in October 2012 and is almost complete. Unfortunately, Selling said, the onset of winter weather means it won’t be finished until April. “We haven’t had much rain, but we need temperatures consistently in the 50s or 60s to complete the job,” he explained.

Selling said the project “will be a safety enhancement for travelers along 132. They won’t have to worry about trucks coming out anymore. It will be a definite improvement on their travel.”

And although it’s been years in the making, adding the terms to the permits was a positive action by a government agency.

“This is definitely a good thing that we had the foresight,” Selling said. “Despite the long time in developing the project, it’s a definite improvement on 132. It’s really a win-win.”

OK, he convinced me. How about you?

Send questions to Sue Nowicki at snowicki@modbee.com, fax to (209) 578-2207 or mail to P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352-5256.

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