Our View: Proposition 1B paying off for valley

Highway 99 getting several much-needed upgrades thanks to the 2006 ballot initiative

August 17, 2013 

Our valley gets shortchanged in many ways by state and federal governments. And we, as voters, pass propositions and later wonder what we ever got in return.

Today, we have something to feel good about. In 2006, California voters approved Proposition 1B, a $19.9 billion state bond for highway, street and transit improvements, and seven years later, it is paying off for the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Many of the big highway projects now under way or starting soon are being funded in small or large part by Proposition 1B.

Then-Gov. Schwarzenegger insisted that Proposition 1B include $1 billion for Highway 99, something that had not happened until that time. Say what you will about his legacy as governor, this move had a lasting positive impact.

One goal was to widen Highway 99 to six lanes throughout the San Joaquin Valley and another was to get rid of the outdated, unsafe crossings, where drivers stop and pull across 99 like it was a country road. Those didn't exist in Stanislaus County anymore, but there were several such crossings in Merced and farther south.

Getting rid of those old crossings and segments where 99 was considered an expressway and not a freeway explains why a lot of Proposition 1B money is going to Merced County. Proposition 1B footed huge parts of those bills — $108 million toward the $118.7 million Plainsburg project and almost $92 million toward the $128.1 million Arboleda Drive project.

The stretch of 99 through Stanislaus County was already six lanes, but our county is benefiting from the fact that some of the other projects didn't cost as much as initially expected. The Kiernan Avenue interchange is being rebuilt, and money is expected to be approved this fall for the Pelandale interchange, also in north Modesto.

Another north Stanislaus project also is getting Proposition 1B dollars, even though it isn't on 99. Regional, state and local funds also are paying for the $44 million widening of Kiernan Avenue, a k a Highway 219, between Morrow Road and McHenry Avenue.

The massive bill also provided money for cities and counties to do maintenance and small projects. Modesto, for example, received about $4.8 million according to the searchable database maintained by Caltrans. It's available at www.bondaccountability.dot.ca.gov/ bondacc.

Stanislaus and Merced counties haven't been eligible for a big chunk of the 1B money, the $1 billion that was set aside for so-called self-help counties, those that have a higher sales tax earmarked for transportation. Since 1990, San Joaquin County residents have been paying a half-percent higher sales tax for transportation projects. In 2006, San Joaquin voters renewed it for an additional 30 years.

That money is used for bicycle lanes and other projects, for mass transit such as the Altamont Commuter Express trains and it explains why more than 48 percent of the $761 million in projects that Caltrans is overseeing in District 10 are in San Joaquin County. San Joaquin has had money to pay for projects to be designed and right-of-way purchases. "If you're ready, then you get the money," explains District 10 director Carrie L. Bowen.

That ability to use local money to get state and federal dollars is why many Stanislaus County leaders want a designated sales tax for transportation, too, and some are hoping to put it back before voters in 2014.

Not all of the big local projects are getting 1B dollars. The resurfacing and restoration of 99 from the Stanislaus River to the Merced County line is coming from the state Highway Operation and Protection Program. Drivers will be relieved to know the $76 million project, started in 2012, should be finished next summer.

Another major resurfacing project, also not connected to Proposition 1B, is planned for Interstate 5 in western Stanislaus County. That's a $53.6 million project scheduled to begin in early 2017.

Even with all of the Proposition 1B money that has come into the north valley, there's nowhere near enough to pay for some long- needed projects. There's no funding to construct a new Mitchell-Service Road interchange at 99, for example, and no money confirmed to complete the North County Corridor or to reroute and widen Highway 132 west of Modesto.

But within the next couple of years, 99 will be a much-improved highway, the direct result of Proposition 1B. This is a case where voters are getting what they wanted and were willing to pay for.

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