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Manteca’s elected leaders playing round two of cannibalizing interchange projects
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

It’s time to stop playing games with Manteca’s future.

Manteca is now at a crossroads where decisions made in the coming weeks or months by the City Council will cement the fate of this community for generations to come when it comes to traffic, the quality of life, and ultimately the body count on the 120 Bypass.

The decisions revolve around three key interchange projects:

The replacement of the Union Road/120 Bypass interchange with a four-lane diverging diamond interchange.uThe development of the McKinley/120 Bypass interchange.

The Highway 99/120 Bypass fix that includes the Austin Road interchange.

And all of those decisions have a big problem. They cost money and Manteca doesn’t yet have it all in hand. The first two also reflect a lot of money and time spent to date that is in excess of $5 million once you count environmental work, pre-design work, design work, preparing a contract for bid, purchasing property and homes while hanging the threat of eminent domain over the heads of families, and tearing said homes down.

If you think government moves slow wait until you measure the gestation period for a major interchange project complete with full blown EIR undertakings.

Decisions were made years ago based on the realities of the time to move forward with the McKinley and Union projects. McKinley arguably has been in the works since 1998 when the unrealistic dream known as the Tara Business Park and town center-style of mixed residential and commercial use was hatched in southwest Manteca. The goal was to repeat the Hacienda Business Park model in Pleasanton.

Union Road is in the heart of the 120 Bypass corridor and as such is the “central interchange” that serves the older part of Manteca north of the freeway and the developing area south of the 120 Bypass. It is also where you will find projects moving forward today — one 428-unit apartment complex, a 130,000-square-foot furniture store/warehouse, and the initial stages of a remake of Orchard Valley to add apartments and condos to create a workable mixed use “town center” type of development in the genre of San Jose’s Santana Row with Northern San Joaquin Valley sensibilities.

Great Wolf wasn’t in the picture when either project was in its incubation period nor were the Airport Way corridor business parks that are now unfolding with the likes of 5.11 Tactical, Penske-Lowe’s Home Improvement, and another 5 million plus square feet of distribution centers with part of that getting ready to break ground this year. Big League Dreams, Costco, and Stadium Retail Center weren’t on the radar when the work on McKinley started. The city’s much ballyhooed family entertainment zone wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination when either interchange project was in the initial stages of being explored.

In retrospect, it would seem Airport Way should have been made into a diverging diamond interchange first and not Union Road. Under current development patterns it could have delayed the need for building the McKinley interchange. To un-ring the bell now would throw away $5 million worth of work plus $1 million secured for a pedestrian/bicycle bridge across the 120 Bypass  in what is shaping up to be the future developed center of Manteca. Losing that bridge will leave tens of thousands of people without a safe way to cross the freeway on foot or bicycle given the crossings at Main, Union and Airport lack sidewalks, fences for safety, and barriers to protect bicyclists from bridge traffic. McKinley may have all of those but it might as well be built on the moon for what good it will do for pedestrians. No one is going to walk 2 to 4 miles out of their way for a safe crossing of the 120 Bypass.

And now let’s talk about the gift horse — the $60 million first phase reworking of the 99/120 interchange to reduce the body count, massive congestion that wastes countless hours for every commuter who must pass through it each year, and the once-a-day serious accidents. This project was not even in the realm of possibility four years ago. But thanks to a lot of footwork on the part of city and regional leaders the state — which didn’t have anything on its radar to improve the interchange for the next 20 years — stepped up. The result is a three-phase $160 million project. The first phase is moving toward a 2021 ground breaking and will basically address the eastbound mess on the 120 Bypass as well as the southbound mess on Highway 99 for $60 million. A second phase costing $30 million will address the northbound Highway 99 congestion as it relates to traffic heading west on the 120 Bypass. The third phase is $70 million to make a full interchange functional at Austin Road without severe traffic flow and safety consequences on the 120/99 upgrade.

Most of the money has been identified for the $60 million first phase. All the key state and regional players are committed to finding a way to fund the $30 million second phase. The third phase — if Manteca wants it — is on the city’s dime.

The 120/99 project is where rhetoric, being in never-ending campaign mode, lack of a staff report concerning the largest investments the city is making, and an incredibly myopic outlook is threatening to unravel everything and ultimately make traffic and congestion worse than anyone could possibly imagine.

Perhaps staff thought that since they have made it clear the city doesn’t have keys to Fort Knox that when they forwarded a Caltrans request about the city deciding whether they wanted the Austin Road bridge to be two or four lanes noting two lanes was on the state’s dime and the $6 million additional cost for the four –lane bridge would be the city’s responsibility, that the council’s eyes wouldn’t get as big as saucers and essentially say that they want four lanes.

Keep in mind the city is coming up a couple million short on the Union Road project they have awarded a contract for that may also include upwards of a $4 million additional expense courtesy of PG&E. McKinley Avenue needs even more funding than what is in place. So who in their right mind thought the council would jump at the chance to possibly commit to spending another $6 million they don’t have?

The rationale given was so they could do Austin Road “right” the first time it makes sense to spend $6 million now that the city doesn’t have as opposed to $10 million or so down the road the city. That is faulty logical in more ways than one. To make Austin Road a functional four-lane interchange complete with northbound onramp and a southbound off ramp due to it being on top of the 99/120 interchange, it will cost almost $86 million in money that the city doesn’t have. Granted it is less expensive than the $120 million or so that was bantered about for the city to build another interchange to replace Austin Road farther to the south. The previous council yanked that idea because they had no idea where they would be getting the $120 million to do the work.

Now the council is on the verge of pursuing a shoot-from-the-hip planning du jour policy, tossing out goodwill built with Caltrans and the San Joaquin Council of Governments, and all the time and investment in Union Road and by cannibalizing the project so they can put a more robust interchange in at Austin Road to spur even more growth than is now happening on the city’s southeastern flank. Of course, that growth may not happen but at least the city will have a four-lane bridge serving a two-lane country road.

And if you’re not a bit on edge about how Manteca is being steered into the future let’s not forget it was just a month ago this very City Council cannibalized funding from the McKinley project so the Union Road work could go out to bid. And now they want to do the reverse — cannibalize Union Road to the point of its death to fund McKinley. Any takes on what direction the City Council will take next month?

Manteca must not do anything to jeopardize the 120/99 work. The city needs to live within its means and go with the two-lane Austin Road bridge for now. They need to explore the possibility of an interest free loan from COG secured by future growth fees to complete the work at McKinley. And, perhaps more important, they need to get out of campaign mode and stop promising everyone the moon and buckle down and govern within the parameters of reality.

If not this council will go down in history of undoing a successful and painful decade-long effort that balanced the municipal budget while building reserves needed to buffer against economic downturns while at the same time undertaking expensive flip flops with interchange projects costing taxpayers a combined $118 million.