Competition fierce for Stanislaus County road money; buses face unexpected threat

10/15/2013 5:59 PM

10/16/2013 12:18 AM

A tug-of-war over limited road money could play out this evening, with Modesto and Stanislaus County holding the advantage and Turlock and Newman in underdog roles.

At the same meeting, transportation leaders are expected to order a transit study aimed at rescuing vulnerable bus systems in Modesto, Turlock and Ceres, which no longer make enough money. County buses could be in jeopardy, too.

Every couple of years, the county and its nine cities decide which of several regional projects on a wish list are worthy of scarce state road money. The need always exceeds what’s available for the Stanislaus area, and the process resembles a competition, with representatives from each agency gathering to pick winners and losers.

This year, local leaders know they will have about $13.74 million. When the Stanislaus Council of Governments asked for proposals, agencies submitted requests worth more than three times that amount – $45 million.

Modesto seeks money for a new Highway 132 bypass of Maze Boulevard west of downtown, Turlock wants a new Highway 99 interchange at Fulkerth Road, and Newman plans to upgrade the section of Highway 33 running through that city. The county hopes to widen Modesto’s McHenry Avenue link to Escalon and install traffic signals at Keyes’ Highway 99 interchange.

Advisory committees favored the Highway 132 and McHenry projects, but not unanimously. Newman thinks another source might be better for its project, leaving Turlock with the most vocal objection; city managers of Ceres and Newman joined Turlock in dissent and Riverbank abstained from voting.

The only vote that counts comes tonight before StanCOG’s policy board after debating, if the parties so choose.

StanCOG’s staff prefers the Highway 132 and McHenry proposals partly because the county has pledged to contribute enough of its own money to leverage both, in effect helping state money to stretch further. The county would pitch in $4 million and $9 million, respectively, for the two projects, a report says. Also, San Joaquin County set aside $5.5 million to spruce up McHenry on the north side of the Stanislaus River.

Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden stuck up for his city’s Fulkerth interchange request at an Oct. 2 meeting. Another ad hoc planning committee had given more points to that proposal than the others in a previous ranking.

In an unrelated issue, bus systems throughout the county could be in big trouble because of a state requirement tied to population and profitability.

For years, they’ve been excused from a state standard that expects transit services to cover at least 20 percent of operating costs with passenger fares. The exception is allowed for rural counties, defined as having fewer than 500,000 people, with ticket proceeds covering as little as 15 percent of costs.

Stanislaus’ population ticked past that threshold with the 2010 census, listed at 514,453. But bus systems in the county’s three largest cities – Modesto, Turlock and Ceres – still recover only 15 percent of costs with fares.

Also, the county’s bus system, which barely meets a state standard of 10 percent farebox recovery for rural unincorporated services, must up its performance to 15 percent under the newly triggered population formula.

Modesto tried to identify a loophole in the rule, but StanCOG’s lawyers formally advised against it. To continue receiving state transit money, “some operators may have to significantly reduce or eliminate transit service,” a report warns.

StanCOG staff members propose paying a consultant $107,000 to study the bus systems and tell them how they could make more money.

If no one requests discussion, approval tonight would be automatic because the item is listed on the policy board’s consent agenda.

A 2009 study of the same bus systems concluded that they were underused because general awareness of transit was low.

In 2011, StanCOG’s staff spent six months studying whether the bus systems could merge and concluded that leaders should hire a consultant for $100,000 to do another study. Leaders were indignant and dropped the issue.

The policy board meets at 6 this evening in StanCOG’s third-floor chamber, 1111 I St., Modesto. To see the agenda, go to www.stancog.org/pdf/policy-board/agendas/2013/pb-agenda-10-16-2013.pdf.

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