Have you taken a drive through the Manteca forest lately?
It’s a lush urban oasis with hundreds of trees.
It was created by man to enhance nature and to give those passing through the Family City to points east, west, south and north a sense of “wow “instead of a feeling of drab.
The planting scheme was worthy of Gilroy Gardens Theme Park with every tree and shrub planted just so.
There were taller trees planted for the back with heights scaling down toward the roadway. The evergreen trees picked for the back were similar to the ones you’ll find along Center Street just west of Union Road along Morenzone Field.
Others in the mix include several types of oak trees, western red buds, Chinese pistachios, and several others. The trees were selected for their ability to withstand the valley’s hot and dry summers.
So where is this magical woodlands?
I’ll give you a hint. More than 140,000 vehicles pass through out a day.
Still at a loss?
It’s the Highway 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange.
Before you ask what I’ve been vaping lately, this is not a joke.
It is a $2,005,742.77 travesty.
That’s the amount of Obama-era stimulus funding that was literally planted in the ground at the interchange, along much of the 120 Bypass as well as a segment of Highway 99 from the Bypass interchange to the Lathrop Road interchange.
Ten years ago more than 5,400 trees and 3,900 shrubs were planted. The project involved 28,700 cubic feet of mulch, 500,000 square feet of hydro seed for grass, and the planting of vines to soften the appearance of sound walls and reduce the need of graffiti abatement.
The $2 million also included the contractor maintaining the landscaping and periodically watering it for a three year period.
There are perhaps 1,000 trees and shrubs that survived. There is 50 times the amount of vines covering the Chadwick Square Estates sound wall along a fifth of a mile of Lathrop Road in Manteca than the five miles of sound walls involved in the plantings along both freeways.
The weeds won the war with the hydro seeded grass. The mulch looked nice for about a month.
Many of the trees and shrubs that still stand have provided convenient cover for homeless encampments within the freeway right-of-way.
But as far as “government” is concerned what your see — and don’t see — is a shining example of mission accomplished.
That’s because the only reason the federal government budgeted the money was to “stimulate” the economy by putting to work about two dozen people for two months as well as create demand for trees and such from nurseries that would help keep others employed and possiblye keep businesses from closing their doors.
Such was the bottom line of the economic stimulus effort hatched at the depths of the Great Recession that was as severe as it was thanks to people’s greed, lying on loan documents (whether by deliberately overstating income or ignoring when it was falsified on loan documents), and refusal to see the virtues in delayed gratification as oppose to wanting the world and wanting it now.
So how did we get to the point Uncle Sam —who is actually bankrolled by you and me — would spend $2 million to get the awe-inspiring landscaping you see today at the interchange, along the 120 Bypass between Highway 99 and Airport Way as well as along segments of Highway 99?
Surprising as it might sound it was a bid to save Manteca taxpayers money.
It was going to cost the city $315,000 to landscape the Yosemite/Highway 99 interchange as well as put in an irrigation system and the raised brick median feature on the west side of the interchange.
Municipal staff got wind that the Obama Administration had set aside stimulus money for California transportation projects for shovel ready projects but no agency in the state had projects ready to go that could take advantage of the $2 million plus set aside only for highway landscaping endeavors. Manteca did.
Manteca also saw it as an opportunity to landscape the Highway 99/120 Bypass interchange. City leaders approached the San Joaquin Council of Governments that serves as a regional clearing house for state and federal funds about adding the second interchange into the mix. If SJCOG was successful, it meant Measure K money that under state and federal law to secure funds from those sources also had to have set aside for landscaping could be used for landscaping projects elsewhere in the county.
The city and SJCOG — working with Caltrans — fast tracked plans for the Highway 99/120 Bypass interchange landscaping and were able to secure the stimulus funding.
The design was a departure for Caltrans when it comes to landscaping along state freeways. When it reached maturity, the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange landscaping was expected to resemble woodlands.
At the same time mulch was placed in such a manner to serve as a fire break to slow down any fires to allow firefighters a chance to knock down grass fires hopefully in time before they could damage trees.
Manteca leaders were mindful of an elderly woman who died from smoke inhalation when a grass fire years prior at the interchange sent heavy smoke across Highway 99, disorientated her husband who was driving and they drove into the area that was burning.
Designing fire breaks coupled with the fact mature woodlands would minimize the growth of weeds plus block winds ultimately was expected to mean that fires which are a routine occurrence on all quadrants of the interchange during the dry season would be substantially reduced.
It all sounded great — except to then Councilman Steve DeBrum. He was extremely skeptical that simply watering the trees and shrubs for three years would allow them adequate time to get established.
Ironically what is now along the 120 Bypass is a heightened fire hazard. Prior to the landscaping being planted, Caltrans would hire contractors annually to mow all of the weeds down. It is still done in the center divider and at interchanges. But along sound walls and fence lines weeds are difficult to hit with tractors given the number of bushes that were planted. In short, the landscaping effort — that was supposed to help reduce the fire hazard — may have increased it.
But given what the premise behind the America Recovery Act was — interjecting dollars to prop up construction sector jobs — the landscaping you see along the 120 Bypass qualifies as a success story for the federal government.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com