State panel gives green light to North County Corridor near Modesto

SACRAMENTO — The North County Corridor zoomed ahead Thursday with a unanimous vote of confidence from California transportation commissioners, preserving chances of future funding for the freeway proposed north of Modesto.

The vote is one in a series of steps that would enable leaders to transfer $91 million set aside by the state for a previous bypass plan to build the North County Corridor instead.

While previous hearings in Stanislaus County drew hundreds of people, many of them upset at the concept of a new expressway ruining homes and farms, none spoke in opposition before Thursday's milestone vote.

Dignitaries from the county and Oakdale were in high spirits afterward because the action signified high-level support from those who set California's transportation policy. The California Department of Transportation, the state's construction arm, has partnered for years with local leaders on the concept.

"This is an extremely significant step," said county Supervisor Jeff Grover. "This will change the way transportation happens in our county for the next 50 years."

Local testimony was limited to Farrell Jackson, mayor of Oakdale, where previous plans for a bypass north of the city were ditched in favor of the North County Corridor. It would run east from Highway 99 in Salida, skirting Modesto on the north and Riverbank and Oakdale on the south, connecting with Highway 108 about six miles east of Oakdale.

Jackson carried two pages of notes for a presentation, including 11 reasons for keeping the expressway on track, such as economic benefits, improved safety and a fast, smooth connection to Highway 99 as opposed to dozens of time-consuming stops and starts.

Pared-down presentation

But an earlier agenda item expected to last 90 minutes took more than four hours, and commissioners were in no mood for drawn-out speeches. Jackson scratched all but two introductory sentences, and the commission gave a green light with no discussion.

"This is a huge, huge step," Jackson said after the meeting. He said he had expected opposition from at least a few critics. Some last week sued the California Transportation Commission, saying environmental studies were inadequate.

A representative of Derrel's Mini Storage, which has a business on Kiernan Avenue near the expressway's potential route, told The Bee he supports the future freeway. Paul Ridenour, no relation to Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, said he intended to ask that officials choose an alignment sparing his family's business, but opted not to speak because of the compressed time granted to the North County Corridor.

In another unusual show of support, state transportation commissioners on Thursday agreed with a last-minute request to include the North County Corridor before adopting a statewide document laying out plans for California's transportation network. Stanislaus was the only county among the state's 58 to receive that treatment, and it signals that the corridor plan is a priority.

"We are unique," said consulting engineer Kris Balaji.

Next steps include narrowing a general study area to a precise route and searching for more than $1 billion in funding. Crews could break ground on the stretch east of McHenry Avenue in Modesto by 2025.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.