Jeff Jardine

November 13, 2013

Jeff Jardine: Mountain counties get bypasses, Stanislaus County gets impasses

Three area counties have completed highway bypasses since 2004, while Stanislaus County keeps on talking about one.

The second phase of the Highway 108 East Sonora bypass opened two weeks ago – and just in time for the skier traffic, assuming it ever starts snowing.

Great weather enabled construction crews to finish the project in 19 months, eight calendar pages ahead of schedule. The $54 million project includes two major bridges, with crews remodeling the mountains by moving thousands upon thousands of yards of dirt and rock. It’s the third stretch of new highway opened in Tuolumne County since 1987.

To the north, Calaveras and Amador counties finished bypasses within the past decade, with more in the pipeline. In fact, Amador, Alpine and Calaveras counties pooled some of their transportation funds to complete $100 million in road projects since 2004.

Then there’s Stanislaus County’s North County Corridor project, which has been in the planning stage in one form or another at least since 1954. State and local transportation officials have worn out more drawing boards than bulldozers. Contributing factors include failed self-help road tax measures, the inability to get the public on board to choose a route, and the lack of political will needed to push the project through. Those and other factors resulted in numerous maps showing potential routes, a major route change from north of the Stanislaus River to south of Riverbank and Oakdale (no argument there), and lots of meetings and lots of arguing. And still no decision or starting date.

So how did the foothills counties, with a combined population one-fourth the size of Stanislaus County’s, get their bypasses built while ours keeps getting bypassed?

Certainly, they must be among the “self-help” counties whose residents passed tax measures to get matching funds from the state, right? Wrong. Amador County’s self-help tax vote failed, getting only 48 percent instead of the needed two-thirds. Neither Tuolumne nor Calaveras are self-help counties, either.

“Self-help is narrowly defined as to whether you have a sales tax measure,” said Darin Grossi, executive director of the Tuolumne County Transportation Council. Other funding sources such as developer fees can achieve the same result, he said. Tuolumne County ponied up $17 million for the latest phase while the state paid $22 million. The remaining $15 million came from Proposition 1B, a statewide referendum voters approved in 2006. The county will now start looking for money for the final leg – a $50 million, 1.9-mile stretch connecting to the decades-old four-lane Twain Harte Grade built in the 1960s.

Likewise, Calaveras County’s Highway 4 Bypass benefited from Proposition 1B funds, but also joined with Amador and Alpine counties to form a tricounty partnership to get other projects done regionally. Just over 2 miles long and heading east from Angels Camp, the bypass cost $40 million. The next step will be the $51.1 million, 6.5-mile project that will eliminate many of the nasty curves on Highway 4 between Copperopolis and Angels Camp.

“It was a kind of trendsetting, unprecedented coalition the California Transportation Commission hadn’t seen before,” said Melissa Eads, executive director of the Calaveras Council of Governments.

Charles Fields, executive director of the Amador County Transportation Commission, said the $52.2 million Highway 49 bypass of Sutter Creek took a long time to get started.

“It goes back to the 1940s,” he said. “Then it was on the drawing board at Caltrans, until (Caltrans Director) Adriana Gianturco and Jerry Brown (in his first administration) reorganized, and it sort of went away.”

The project resurfaced in the early 1990s, and opened in 2007.

Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties ultimately achieved what has eluded Stanislaus County thus far: public buy-in.

“We’re pretty confident that 95 percent of our people are happy with (the route),” Field said. “We had 23 public meetings. We met with groups of landowners and had six additional meetings with property owners.”

A couple of them didn’t want to sell, he said. They opted to go through the condemnation process but didn’t try to sue to stop the project.

Granted, the three projects in those three counties combined aren’t as long as the proposed North County Corridor Expressway, which could stretch about 20 miles at a projected cost of about $400 million, of which county officials only have $91 million. And the foothills counties dealt with far fewer property owners. The Amador and Calaveras bypasses traversed cattle grazing drylands, not prime farm or orchard lands. But they did include large and expensive bridges.

Here, officials are dealing with hundreds of property owners, few of whom want to see their properties become part of a freeway. Every route option is going to displace or impact farmers and ranchers as well as people who moved to the country to escape, among other things, traffic.

Indeed, the bypass here is a much tougher sell. The California Department of Transportation, executives from the other counties said, relies on local officials to determine the best route and win over residents.

“Just understand the long-term vision and the benefits of creating a plan and sticking to it,” Tuolumne County’s Grossi said. “Every time you change the plan, it creates delays and the cost increases. Once you’ve brokered the deal, stick with it.”

Ultimately, it will come down to the political will to make a tough decision and run with it, Amador County’s Field said.

“The local agency has to work hard to develop the local consensus,” he said. “We were early enough that we built it before development came. We only had to take out one home. The owner’s wife was in tears. That was the hard part. But then you have to admit there will be losers, and deal with it.”

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