Kiernan overpass becomes priority as Stanislaus County chases $46M from state

What would you do for $46 million?

It's a real possibility for local transportation leaders in search of state money. But they can't spend it on just anything, and they have to move quickly.

So they recently made a distant dream of rebuilding the Kiernan Avenue interchange with Highway 99 into a top priority, hired an architect and signaled intent to acquire nearby land needed for beefier ramps. Construction could begin as soon as 2013.

At stake is bond money meant only for Highway 99 improvements, which the California Transportation Commission intends to give out in the first week of November.

"It's a whole bunch of money," said Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O'Brien, who also serves with the area's transportation planning agency.

The county and Modesto seem to be prevailing in a struggle with Merced, whose leaders are backing down from a competing request for $97 million. They had hoped to improve an interchange to attract a maintenance shop for high-speed trains, but will wait for another funding round, county Supervisor Jeff Grover said.

But the Kiernan plan still isn't a sure thing.

The interchange makeover that leaders prefer could cost $72 million. The extra $26 million would come from a combination of sources, some of which appear shaky.

For example, leaders are counting on millions of dollars owed by Modesto City Schools for traffic generated by nearby Gregori High School, which opened in August. The district will owe $3.4 million when Gregori's enrollment reaches 1,200 students, expected next year, and $9 million when it reaches capacity, county officials have said.

But school officials refuse to sign an agreement, the county says. The district "needs to be careful not to pay more than its fair share," Superintendent Arturo Flores told The Bee in May.

Another funding source for the Kiernan upgrade: developer fees, which aren't exactly pouring in during a bruising recession. Even if they were, leaders aren't certain who will control that money in the future.

The county historically has controlled Regional Transportation Impact Fees required from development to pay its share for some government facilities, a majority of which goes to roads. When the county recently revamped the fee formula, cities argued for a greater say in how that money is collected and spent, and the county agreed to sit down and talk.

A resolution is expected within 18 months, said Rick Robinson, the county's chief executive officer. But it's impossible to predict an ongoing commitment to using those fees for the Kiernan project.

"Supervisors should be aware that funding for these projects is not as secure as originally anticipated," reads a recent report reviewed by county leaders before hiring a firm to design the Kiernan upgrade, for $5.5 million.

Supervisors also signaled that they will use eminent domain to seize property needed for improvements if owners don't willingly sell. Agencies must pay fair market value, but owners can challenge offers in court.

One version of plans has officials acquiring 5½ acres, producing a heavier-duty overpass. But leaders are fond of a more ambitious, looping design requiring nearly 12 acres, providing more distance between a southbound onramp and the nearby Pelandale Avenue interchange.

Local and state leaders also want to add fourth lanes to Highway 99 in each direction between the Kiernan and Pelandale interchanges, potentially relieving congestion.

"(Traffic) backs up there every evening because you've got people trying to get on and off and there's not enough distance for people to weave in and out," said Matt Machado, the county's public works director. "Increasing that weaving distance makes it a whole lot better."

Besides adding the Kiernan upgrade to its priority list, the Stanislaus Council of Governments included a $14 million widening of Claribel Road, from McHenry Avenue to Oakdale Road. The state recently widened Kiernan, which becomes Claribel, from Highway 99 to east of Dale Road.

"Even though (the Kiernan interchange) is not in my district, it's a connector to my district," said O'Brien, who represents Riverbank, Oakdale and Waterford. "It's all give and take. If you split up (fee revenue) 10 ways, you'll never get anything done."

Kiernan-Claribel improvements are moving separately from the North County Corridor, a future expressway linking Highway 99 near Hammett Road to Highway 108 east of Oakdale. However, some North County Corridor opponents have urged leaders to improve Kiernan-Claribel rather than build a new east-west freeway, and officials say they will consider it.

Kiernan-Claribel improvements could push back other projects on a regional wishlist, including widening parts of McHenry and Albers Road and rebuilding Geer Road intersections at Santa Fe and Whitmore avenues, as well as the intersection of Crows Landing and Keyes roads, a report warns.

"It might mean those other projects wait while funding builds up again," said Laurie Barton, the county's assistant public works director.

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