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The 120 Bypass; A bird in hand vs. 2 in the bush

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POSTED August 7, 2017 1:06 a.m.

Councilman Mike Morowit is right about the severe impacts Manteca would have to deal with if access to Highway 99 is eliminated at Austin Road.

But there is a danger in being “too right” and turning that position into the proverbial line in the sand. Morowit made his observations at a Caltrans workshop on two proposals to address congestion, accidents, and operational issues at the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange. There are two alternates — “A” that keeps ramps at Austin and “B” that eliminates the ramps at Austin for good.

Due to the price tag of “A”, it would have to be phased. Morowit favors “A” but is more than a little nervous that once Austin ramps are closed for construction they may never reopen due to Caltrans, et al, having yet to identify the money to do the second phase.

It is important to remember a few things.

First, before Manteca’s elected leaders organized a regional effort pointing out the high fatality and accident rate — arguably the worst for a stretch of freeway in the Northern San Joaquin Valley — as well as how congestion was impacting the movement of goods and the commute of tens of thousands throughout the region, upgrading the interchange wasn’t even on the 20-year radar. That meant there wasn’t funding set aside for it let alone $81.6 million.

In less than 18 months, multiple agencies made the interchange upgrade a priority, roughly $58 million identified, and a fall of 2021 construction start date set. That underscores just how bad the accident rate and congestion are and how key the interchange is to the region.

Ten years ago when Manteca started toying around with the idea of building another interchange between Austin and Jack Tone Road, Caltrans made it clear the Austin Road interchange was way too close to the 120/Highway 99 for what are now well-established standards of operational  movement and safety.

If you doubt that, look at the proposed remedy that keeps Austin access intact. The elaborate on and off ramps are needed to keep traffic flowing at a reasonable speed, to handle high volumes of traffic and to reduce the potential for accidents. There’s no safer or more efficient alternative for the 99/120 traffic movements.

 It is why for years Manteca went forward on the premise Austin Road ramps would be closed once the Raymus interchange was built. 

Manteca leaders almost a decade ago were told the price tag for the Raymus interchange would be in excess of $100 million due to the need to shift the freeway east so the railroad tracks could be cleared. Then Caltrans agreed to modifications at Austin to allow the 1,050-acre business park to move forward in its initial phases before Raymus needed to be built.

Two months ago, the City Council discovered their desire to build the Raymus interchange and an interchange north of Lathrop Road on Highway 99 for the envisioned extension of Lovelace Road accounts for almost a third of the new projects that growth fees for roads would have to cover. Those fees, unless they are trimmed significantly, will kill retail and job growth. Then Caltrans comes along and drops an $82 million gift in Manteca’s lap that will save them $100 million providing they realize what they have been given.

Redoing Austin as Caltrans envisions would greatly reduce — or eliminate — the need for the Raymus interchange. And given Austin Road is already a part of the state freeway system, the upgrades aren’t on Manteca’s dime thanks to its regional concerns and Measure K funding.

The bottom line for Caltrans is simple. They have been made aware of a severe operational and congestion problem that has a direct correlation with a stretch of the 120 Bypass being the deadliest stretch of freeway in the region.

They have an obligation to modify the interchange for public safety. After all, that was Manteca’s battle cry that got the ball rolling. They could decide ultimately to close the Austin ramps even if Manteca objects. And if Manteca manages to stop that from happening, then on whose hands will the blood and carnage on the 120 Bypass be — the state or Manteca’s?

Morowit brings up a point about the future fire station at Woodward/Atherton and mutual aid with Ripon and how closing the Austin Road ramps would lengthen response times. Good point, however, Manteca has now been talking about building the station for 10 years and even though it has partial plans to build it has no idea when they will build it or staff it for that matter. That’s even with 1,800 homes in southwest Manteca out of the targeted five-minute response time. It is, by the way, a more pressing safety concern than mutual aid calls.

As for the ramps, even if “A” is built in phases they will be closed for at least two years. And if it is delayed longer — as well as during construction — no one will be using south Manteca neighborhoods as a bypass for the 120 Bypass because they won’t be able to get back on the freeway.

The best solution is to get an agreement in place that the Austin Road ramps will be modified. Local agencies could also find a way to move Measure K funds around to do the entire project at once given it is a key regional endeavor. That’s what was done to get the I-205 and the 120 Bypass both widened years ahead of schedule and then be reimbursed by the state for its share.

The wrong solution is for Manteca to cross its arms, dig in its heels and say “no.”

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This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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