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Mission Avenue Interchange gets official kickoff

Local and state officials Monday afternoon celebrated the completion of the Mission Avenue Interchange at Highway 99 more than eight months ahead of schedule and said the project is a sign of better things to come transportation-wise.

At Monday's ceremonial ribbon-cutting, Caltrans Director Will Kempton praised the $73.3 million interchange that ultimately could lead to shopping centers and possibly a Wal-Mart distribution center and the Campus Parkway leading to the UC Merced campus.

"It is going to be fun to drive the Highway 99 corridor again," Kempton said. "This job (interchange) generated 1,000 jobs for the Merced region. Our transportation bureaucracy (Caltrans) has become a mobility company."

Despite a state budget deficit in the billions, Kempton said thanks to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state Legislature and voters' passage of Proposition 1B in November 2006, the state's transportation system is doing fine.

Proposition 1B will mean $1 billion in highway improvements over the next five years. Ultimately $6 billion will be spent over the next 20 years making Highway 99 a full-service, six-lane freeway from Sacramento to Bakersfield.

Highway 99 is a $17 billion piece of the state's economy, a major arterial through the heart of the state's agricultural region, Kempton said.

Jesse Brown, executive director of the Merced County Association of Governments, said conversion of all of Highway 99 to six lanes through the county will happen incrementally. He cautioned local officials must continue pressing the state to see that this happens.

Within 24 to 30 months, bids should be sought to make Highway 99 six lanes instead of four from south of Merced to the Madera County line. That project could cost $260 million, Brown estimated.

Merced County Supervisor Kathleen Crookham, whose District 2 includes the Mission Interchange, said the highway improvements will have a tremendous impact on the area and provide an opportunity for economic growth when the interchange is further developed.

She said she can hardly wait for the next leg, when motorists will able to drive to the UC campus from the highway along the Campus Parkway. Completion of the interchange is a classic example of people working together to make things happen, Crookham said.

Ground was broken on the Mission Avenue project in December 2005; Granite Construction was the major contractor. Six grade crossings of the highway were eliminated by the highway upgrade.

The highway will be restriped for six lanes of travel in a two-mile distance between the Childs Avenue overcrossing and McHenry Road south of Merced.

A frontage road and new interchange at Mission Avenue were created with a crossing over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to the west.

Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo said he travels the new section every day and said the area is "making great strides."

Merced City Council member Bill Spriggs said Schwarzenegger's efforts need to be acknowledged, especially in tying transportation to jobs.

"Without infrastructure, you can't provide jobs," he said.

Kome Ajise, Caltrans' District 10 director in Stockton, said the new interchange is vital to Merced and will provide world class access to a world class research center at the university. He said the Mission Interchange will provide multiple levels of benefits and is money well-spent.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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