Merced leaders making moves to add to Campus Parkway

03/27/2014 7:28 PM

03/27/2014 11:45 PM

Merced area leaders are preparing to make a move to get funding to add another section to Campus Parkway, a route that will eventually connect Highway 99 and UC Merced.

Together with the Merced County Association of Governments and Merced County, the city of Merced plans to seek U.S. Department of Transportation discretionary funding next month to complete the second phase of the parkway.

Leaders have not yet worked out how much they will ask for from the Department of Transportation’s discretionary funds called TIGER, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. The second phase of the parkway is estimated to cost $33 million, said Councilman Josh Pedrozo.

“I would say that this is probably the most important project for the city of Merced,” Pedrozo said. “There’s an opportunity for growth, and it’s our best opportunity for growth at this time.”

In the works for more than a decade and a half, the four-lane expressway has been billed as vital to UC Merced’s success. The parkway could create access to a mostly open area, Pedrozo said, where retail and industrial space is available.

Wal-Mart has also proposed to build a 1.2 million-square-foot distribution center on a 230-acre site just east of the parkway. The center, which could employ as many as 1,200 people, has been delayed but is coming eventually, according to a corporate spokeswoman.

A third phase will also be needed to complete the project, bringing the expected total to $70 million for the final two portions.

There is $600 million in federal money available for the coming year of TIGER funding. Applications are due in late April.

Since 2009, Congress has dedicated more than $4.1 billion to fund projects that affect the nation, a region or a metropolitan area. Last year, three projects in California got money for transportation projects through the discretionary grant. Of the 585 that applied in 2013, fewer than 50 received money nationwide.

“It’s a very competitive program,” said Matt Fell, transportation director for MCAG. “It is quite difficult to get TIGER funding.”

Fell said no project in Merced County has received the discretionary funding since the program started six years ago.

The funding favors projects that are shovel-ready and that promise job creation. With all of the right-of-way purchased and retail as well as industrial development planned for the area, Campus Parkway might have both of those key elements all sewn up.

City Manager John Bramble said opening up space to add retail space and an industrial park along the parkway means a chance to bring jobs to a county with some of the highest unemployment in the state. Though the jobless rate in Merced County has improved significantly from the years following the Great Recession, the number still hovers around 16 percent.

“It’s got tremendous potential for increasing the number of jobs,” Bramble said of the project.

The funding has to be spent in two years. So if Merced sees the money, the second phase of the parkway will be under construction relatively quickly.

The parkway will also play an important role in preventing congestion on Merced’s roads as UC Merced continues to grow, planners have said. Today UC Merced enrolls about 6,200 but that’s projected to jump to 10,000 by 2020, and to continue growing beyond that.

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