Elected officials could have borrowed the catchphrase from the popular 1989 film “Field of Dreams” for Friday’s Atwater-Merced Expressway dedication ceremony, with a slight modification: “If you build it, (dollars) will come.”
Friday’s ceremony marked the completion of the $66 million first phase of the project, north of Merced, as a step toward economic improvements in Merced County, where several more phases are planned.
“Our situation here shows how important infrastructure investment is to economic development,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. He said the effort to complete the expressway must continue.
The latest part of the project replaced the Buhach Road interchange on Highway 99 and is expected eventually to improve travel between the Castle Commerce Center and UC Merced.
To further those and other transportation efforts, county officials are campaigning to get voters to approve a half-cent sales tax in November. Along with fixing local roads, the tax would give the county a pool of money that could help pull in federal dollars, its supporters have said.
Our situation here shows how important infrastructure investment is to economic development.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced
Atwater Mayor Jim Price said the completion of the first phase of the expressway should help the city with its plans for Ferrari Ranch, a 3 million-square-foot development that would include retail stores, restaurants, a movie theater, hotel and medical center.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Merced County Supervisors Daron McDaniel, Diedre Kelsey and Hub Walsh talked about the importance of investing in infrastructure to improve the county’s economic outlook.
The $336 million expressway will eventually connect from Bellevue Road over Highway 99 to Highway 140, officials said. The project will run to Highway 59 and UC Merced, and will widen a section of Highway 99 to six lanes.
The money for the first phase came from a number of sources, including about $7.5 million from the Merced County Association of Governments’ Regional Transportation Impact Fee program. Another $11.9 million came from State Transportation Improvement Program funds. The remaining $46.5 million was funded by leftover bond money from Proposition 1B, a statewide transportation bond approved by voters in 2006.
$336 millionExpected cost of entire Atwater-Merced Expressway
Highway 99 is important to the regional and state economies, according to Samuel Jordan, deputy district director of program and project management for the state Department of Transportation. He said trucks on the highway in this region carry 2 billion tons of products a year to their destinations.
He also said the highway, which carried 4,000 cars a day in 2009, now supports 57,000 a day. The dramatic spike in traffic is largely attributed to road improvements.
Eventually, the network of roads will carry drivers around Merced, avoiding the stretch of Highway 99 that splits the city. UC Merced has a goal to reach 10,000 students by 2020, and could expand beyond that, so regional leaders are looking to alleviate traffic that could build on that stretch of freeway.
Campus Parkway, which is considered a high priority in the city of Merced, also plays into the plans. In the works for more than 15 years, Merced’s planned four-lane expressway has been billed as vital to UC Merced’s success, as well as a boon for business in town.
Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said the expressway and parkway will probably need the help of the half-cent sales tax to come to fruition.
“Without it, I don’t know if we’ll ever have success linking these two together,” he said.