Some Stanislaus County communities are putting Measure L money to work
Whether you're happy with the transportation tax embraced by 71 percent of voters throughout Stanislaus County a year and a half ago might depend on where you live.
Road projects have been popping up since, here and there. But not everywhere.
Four of the county's nine cities — Turlock, Patterson, Hughson and Waterford — have yet to see any payback for the extra money people have been spending in Measure L sales tax. Modesto, by far the county's largest city, has installed three traffic signals and worked on a bicycle path, but hasn't repaired any roads yet despite collecting nearly $10 million in that city alone.
Officials in lagging cities ask for patience, promising that big projects are coming soon.
"Government is never the most nimble form of operations," said Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki, who also leads the region's transportation planning agency. "It takes government a little longer to get some of these things done. But Modesto is lined up and ready to go," he said, noting major improvements to Carpenter Road ($2.9 million) and Lakewood Avenue ($2.5 million), both just around the corner.
Improvements to Modesto's Standiford Avenue worth $3.2 million should come this year as well.
The county's second-largest city, Turlock, has a sad story and nothing to show yet.
More than a year ago, its city council was offended at the only bid Turlock received for its maiden Measure L project, a major reconstruction of West Main Street, from downtown all the way to movie theaters west of Highway 99. So the council rejected the $6.5 million offer, asked for new bids and recently agreed to pay $7.5 million. In other words, bad luck or judgment cost Turlock a year and $1 million.
"Unfortunately, it didn't work out well for us," said Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth. A ground-breaking ceremony for the West Main rebuild is scheduled for July 16.
Soiseth blamed some of Turlock's misfortune on competition with other cities for busy paving contractors' services.
All nine cities, plus county government, began receiving Measure L proceeds at the same time a year ago. That roughly coincided with approval by California leaders for Senate Bill 1, which raised the state gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and diesel tax by 20 cents per gallon, and also increased vehicle fees.
SB 1 is providing a boost in road money for all counties and cities, plus extra in regional projects; Turlock will get $3 million to improve its Fulkerth Road interchange with Highway 99, for example, and the future Highway 132 bypass west of Modesto was awarded $21 million. SB 1 also will pay $4.3 million to upgrade 20 bridges on Interstate 5 in Stanislaus and Merced counties, the California Department of Transportation recently announced.
"That's a lot of money coming our direction," Zoslocki said.
However, voters throughout California will decide in November whether to repeal the gas tax increase.
Meanwhile, Measure L so far is performing better than expected. According to recent figures, the local transportation tax brought in $41.5 million in its first full year, or $3.5 million more than predicted. In its 25-year life, the half-percent increase could generate $960 million, or about $38 million in an average year.
Shoppers are paying 5 cents more for something priced at $10, 50 cents for a $100 item, and so on.
A spending plan sets aside half for local street repair, 10 percent for signals and intersections, 5 percent for bicycle and pedestrian projects, and 7 percent on buses, trains and senior and disability travel. The remaining 28 percent is for regional projects like the Highway 132 bypass and the North County Corridor.
Oakdale might deserve a prize for anticipating the coming glut of road money. The Cowboy Capital was first out of the gate last year with a paving project on a few roads, and now is rebuilding a five-block segment of Magnolia Avenue.
"I like to think we were smart," said Oakdale Mayor Pat Paul, giving credit to City Manager Bryan Whitemyer. "You knew what was going to happen — that everyone was going to come out at the same time and costs were going to go up, so, 'Let's get out there and do it.' And it turned out that's exactly what happened."
Stanislaus County public works also got on the ball early in the game, repaving a lot of Salida streets last year and following in recent weeks with new sidewalk curbs accommodating wheelchairs. And the county has two new traffic signals going in near Hughson, both on busy Geer Road as it intersects with Whitmore Avenue and with Santa Fe Avenue.
More pavement sealing is coming later this year to some streets in Empire and Hickman and to a couple of unincorporated neighborhoods in Modesto for which the county is responsible, as well as to some rural roads near Patterson and Turlock.
"It takes time to build up enough Measure L funding to complete a project," said Michael Pitcock, Waterford's city manager. His council just hired a firm to rebuild Summer Street, with work expected to begin in a few weeks.
Hughson's money is coming in such a relative trickle that leaders decided to repave Santa Fe in two phases, allowing the first to begin soon rather than waiting another six months or more to bid the whole project, City Manager Raul Mendez said.
Because of a money-distribution formula guaranteeing so much for each city, Newman — the county's third-smallest city — hasn't received any more Measure L money than the smallest. But Newman combined that pot of money with extra state gas tax proceeds and other funds and hopes to finish $1.4 million-worth of road improvements in a few weeks.
A few Newman residents on Thursday said they're happy with results.
"It's a little inconvenient, but if it gets us a new road it will be a positive in the end," said Caleb Wilkinson.
Chuck Kidder said it was hard to sleep with open windows for the noise big trucks would make grinding through bumps outside his home. With Inyo Avenue recently repaved, they now whir by quietly, he said.
And no one likes higher taxes, but "if they use it for something constructive, fine," Kidder said.
Just up the road, Patterson has been busy with other projects, including a new signal and road widening at Del Puerto and Sperry avenues paid with federal money. So its leaders have preferred to let Measure L proceeds pile up to allow for a bigger project when Patterson is ready, City Manager Ken Irwin said; they've received $1.2 million so far.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390
BY THE NUMBERS
In the first year since shoppers began paying extra sales tax for transportation needs, these agencies have received the following in Measure L proceeds.
Modesto: $9.8 million
Stanislaus County: $7.4 million
Turlock: $4.1 million
Ceres: $1.7 million
Patterson: $1.2 million
Oakdale: $1 million
Newman, Hughson and Waterford: $336,000 each
Additional money ($11.5 million) has been set aside for regional projects such as the Highway 132 bypass west of Modesto and the North County Corridor, and for future railroad extension ($574,322) and other needs ($861,483).