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Los Banos bypass plans overhauled for three-phase approach

More than 40 years have passed since leaders in Los Banos began looking for a way to build a freeway bypass around their city, but Highway 152 still courses through its center.

Plans for the bypass project were drawn up years ago. Finding a way to pay for it has left those plans on paper.Now the team of agencies working to change that says it's found a new way to make sure another 40 years don't go by before something is built.

The team recently revised plans for the bypass, breaking the $450 million project into three separate phases. They hope the move will make paying for it more manageable.

"We finally realized there was just no way to fund the whole thing all at once in a reasonable timeframe," said Marjie Kirn, deputy executive director of the Merced County Association of Governments, one of a handful of agencies working on the project. "So we're taking it a piece at a time."

The 10-mile-long bypass is planned to start just west of Volta Road and end just east of the Santa Fe Grade. Once it's finished, the bypass would run in a large curve around the north of Los Banos, instead of down Pacheco Boulevard and through the city. Officials in Los Banos say relocating the highway — a route popular among commuters from the Bay Area and truck drivers moving goods across California — is vital to the city's future.

The section that's set to be rerouted has been the site of numerous accidents in recent years, including fatalities. As Los Banos continues to grow, traffic on the heavily congested stretch has only gotten worse.

Under the new, phased plan, about half the bypass would be built first. It would stretch from the Santa Fe Grade west to Highway 165. The agencies involved are now in the process of buying the land to build that stretch, on which they hope to break ground in 2013.

The second half of the bypass, which would stretch from 165 west to Volta Road, would be built later. The third phase would involved building three overpasses along the bypass so drivers wouldn't have to stop at traffic signals. Until the third phase is done, the intersections would be signalized.

The new plan doesn't just makes the bypass more manageable to fund, said Ram Gupta, a project manager with Caltrans, another agency involved. It will also help ease congestion along 152 sooner because the phases would open to drivers as they're completed.

"There is no way we can fund it all together," Gupta said. "This way we can get started and the public can see the progress and start using it." The first phase alone would mean far less traffic on 152 by providing an alternate route, he said.Even with the new plan, however, officials admit that funding the project will be incredibly difficult. "Paying for it has always been the biggest question," Kirn said. "And it still is."

MCAG and most jurisdictions in the county have approved increases to transportation impact fees that developers must pay to help fund road improvements. That's already providing some money for the bypass. But compared to the project's $450 million price tag, the impact fee money is a drop in the bucket, Kirn said.

For the rest of its funding, the bypass will probably have to rely on state and federal dollars, for which the project must compete. Local leaders will have to convince Sacramento and Washington that Merced County's need is greater than others.

For each year the project is delayed, Kirn said, its cost estimate goes up between $5 million and $10 million.

"The longer we wait, the more expensive it gets, so the idea is to just start building," she said. "It's a mess out there, it's hurting people's quality of life and we need to change it."