The Modesto Experiment was a success, state highway leaders declared Tuesday during their first business meeting to be held here, during which they approved a new Pelandale Avenue interchange with Highway 99.
California Transportation Commissioners might even return someday, although other venues that never have played host to the powerful panel would get first dibs, Chairman Jim Ghielmetti told The Bee.
“We’re very pleased to be here,” said Andre Boutros, the commission’s executive director. He and others gave credit to Modesto Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside and Carlos Yamzon, executive director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments, for lobbying to lure the commission’s road trip.
Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, made a cameo appearance, urging commissioners to approve $43.8 million for the Pelandale project.
“When they made the interchange, they didn’t anticipate the population that Modesto was going to have,” Berryhill said. “It needs fixing.”
Darius Assemi was among two commissioners who reminded the senator that more could be accomplished if state legislators would free up more money for transportation. Assemi, a Fresno businessman, is the San Joaquin Valley’s sole representative on the 13-member commission, having replaced Modesto’s Kirk Lindsey after he died in 2009.
Commission vice chairman Carl Guardino cited a study released last week by TRIP, a national transportation research group, which estimated that lousy Modesto roads cost drivers an extra $560 each year in car repairs and fuel because of delays.
A bigger, better Pelandale interchange should make the flow safer and reduce congestion known to back up traffic onto Highway 99, officials say.
The project will more than double capacity on the inadequate three-lane span, which is to be knocked down and replaced by a much larger crossing configured at a new angle.
Plans include an extra southbound freeway lane from Pelandale to the Standiford exit. New lanes in both directions are being added from Pelandale to the Kiernan interchange, where separate reconstruction is in progress.
Work on the Pelandale project should begin in the spring, with the $43.8 million construction tab covered by Tuesday’s vote. An additional $13 million has been spent on design work, environmental studies, buying land and compensating businesses that shut down because they were in the way.
Money approved Tuesday comes from a pot of voter-approved bonds left over when other big-ticket projects throughout the state came in under budget.
Commissioners wined and dined the night before at a Gallo Center for the Arts reception and dinner at Galletto Ristorante, neither of which was billed to taxpayers, Yamzon said.
Tuesday, he took commissioners on a virtual slide-show tour of recent and ongoing road projects in Stanislaus County, including Highway 99 improvements, a remake of Ceres’ Whitmore interchange and future expressway segments to the north and west of Modesto.
Planning a new stretch of Highway 132, allowing traffic to avoid frequent stops on Maze Boulevard, has proved “very challenging,” Yamzon said. It would have been much easier if leaders had pushed forward soon after buying property paralleling Kansas Avenue in the 1950s, he said; because of delays, “now we’re forced to fit it in an urbanized area,” he said.
Yamzon noted that Stanislaus voters have not approved a higher sales tax for transportation projects, as have most large counties, with two measures having failed in 2006 and 2008. He added, “I believe we’re considering looking at that again.”
He mentioned the emerging threat of inadequate water for the valley’s population, saying the issue will be addressed as StanCOG develops regional growth guidelines.
Assemi thanked Burnside and Yamzon, who attended previous hearings in Sacramento, the commission’s most frequent meeting spot, “to get this (Pelandale) project elevated and illuminated so it can get proper funding.”
Burnside called the event “remarkable.” She said local leaders “will continue to foster (relationships). It’s critical we stay engaged.”
Commissioners on Tuesday approved nearly $1 billion in other projects up and down California. The most contentious was a staff recommendation to spend $16.6 million on a creek bridge in San Mateo County that initially was estimated to cost $9.3 million, representing a 78 percent markup.
“Of all the things we do, this is the only thing that will make the damn paper,” Commissioner Bob Alvarado fumed. A majority approved the expense, some citing improved safety.
Other expenses approved Tuesday:
• $3.25 million to widen Claribel Road from Modesto’s McHenry Avenue to Oakdale Road, with two lanes in each direction. That will come after crews finish widening Kiernan, which becomes Claribel at McHenry.
• $840,000 for a bike path on the same stretch of Claribel.
• $42.4 million for trains and their bus connections on Amtrak’s San Joaquin corridor, passing through Modesto from Bakersfield to Stockton.
• $414,000 to complete improvements to the Sonora Bypass in Tuolumne County, to stabilize a hill that ended up having more dirt than rock.