Merced officials to voice transportation needs

09/10/2013 12:00 AM

09/10/2013 12:13 AM

Elected officials from eight San Joaquin Valley planning agencies, including Merced County, will travel to the nation’s capital today for the annual Valley Voice trip.

Officials will spend two days meeting with legislators in Washington, D.C., to advocate for more federal funding for regional transportation projects.

Los Banos Mayor Mike Villalta will represent Merced County, joining staff members from the Merced County Association of Governments on the advocacy trip Wednesday and Thursday.

Lori Flanders, MCAG spokeswoman, said a “goods-movement study” conducted this year identified the most important transportation projects necessary to move agricultural products more quickly throughout the Valley.

Flanders said 49 projects were listed, three of them from Merced County.

One of the projects on the list is the ambitious Los Banos Bypass Project, which county officials said is a top priority.

The $375 million project comprises building an east-west bypass around the city of Los Banos, avoiding 19 traffic lights that drivers encounter while traveling west on Highway 152.

“It’s one of the main corridors, so it increases capacity and will allow us to get things done faster and in safer manner,” Flanders said.

Steve Carrigan, Los Banos city manager, said the project has been a dominant topic of discussion since he started working for the city in April.

The project is at least 15 years from breaking ground, Carrigan said, but the Valley Voice advocacy trip, now in its fifth year, is a primary way of securing funding.

“Everyone is in agreement this project is No. 1, but it’s such a big project, that it’s not something you can fund in a few years,” Carrigan said. “We’re not expecting a lot of success on the first or second trip, but as you go back every year and work your way up on the list of transportation projects, eventually you work your way to the top of the list and get funded.”

“It may take five or 10 years to see the payoff, but you have to start somewhere,” he added.

Other Merced County projects on the list include widening Highway152 from Highway 99 to Highway 101 and widening Highway 99 throughout Merced County from four to six lanes, Flanders said.

Having a plan, similar to the goods-movement plan that will be presented this week, is essential to competing for federal funding and demonstrating the county’s needs to lawmakers.

“They know we’ve gone through this planning effort,” Flanders said. “It shows we’ve taken initiative.”

A copy of the goods-movement study can be found at www.sjvcogs.org.

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