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A signal of more robust Manteca policy debates?
Dennis Wyatt

The quest for traffic signals at Atherton Drive and Airport Way and where it goes could signal the start of a long learning curve or trigger even more frustrations for Manteca residents.

Ben Cantu — who with each passing day with the counting of back logged mail-in ballots appears to be on track to become Manteca’s eighth directly elected mayor —  on Wednesday made it clear he wants to find a way to get traffic signals in place at that intersection now instead of later. He communicated that desire to city staff after a resident approached him about it.

Cantu isn’t the first to bring up the issue. Council members Gary Singh as well as Debby Moorhead pushed for them last year when the contract was being awarded to build the $4 million Atherton Drive gap between Airport Way and Union Road.

Once that gap is bridged, you will be able to take Atherton Drive from Airport Way to Woodward Avenue near Moffat Boulevard to reach Highway 99. Given Atherton Drive is four lanes with less stop signs than Woodward Avenue, the expectations are the hundreds of afternoon commuters who either fear for their lives, want to avoid creeping traffic or are caught in a traffic jam by the all-too-often accidents along the 120 Bypass will be using Atherton Drive instead of Woodward Avenue to bypass the 120 Bypass.

Singh and Moorhead didn’t get much traction at the time as staff noted there is a long queue of pressing road and traffic improvement projects waiting for funding ranging from overtaxed interchanges to once narrow country roads that have become de facto major arterials that need widening such as Airport Way. Then there was the issue of traffic warrants, the legal justifications that litigious California requires so a traffic control measures put in place don’t become a retirement bonanza for lawyers.

Singh at the time said he wanted to revisit the issue next year when the missing link of Atherton Drive was open for traffic. He wants at least a four-way stop.

This could be an opportunity to communicate exactly what all cities are up against when they address traffic issues whether it involves warrants, rules, or paying for improvements. It could also open discussion into why other cities can or are able to do things perhaps a little differently. Lathrop, for example, seems to have less of a resistance to speed humps than Manteca.

Of course, people may not accept the explanations and push for municipal policy changes, which is why there are city councils.

But the biggest discussion as to ‘why’ and ‘why not’ needs to center on how a city tackles needs — as well as wants — when there is a long list and few people are in the mood to pony up more money. This will also require a honest-to-goodness, no holds barred, frank discussion about the players in the community that seem to be viewed by more than a few as a kissing cousin of the bogeyman — developers.

Yes, developers make money just like businessmen make money, teachers make money, tech workers make money, truck drivers make money, and warehouse workers make money.

There is little doubt when the economy is on a roll they are rolling as well. 

But what really matters is a clear understanding of what legally can be charged off to growth. For example, if Manteca built a new police station for a city of 120,000 residents and was ready to move forward today, state law and court rulings would cap the amount of that project that could be charged to new growth at 33 percent given the city already has 80,000 residents and growth will add 40,000 residents. It’s a simplistic example but it illustrates how when upgrading existing infrastructure such as roads you can’t legally put all of the cost on the back of growth.

That said Manteca certainly set a record for dragging its feet to get key growth fees updated and/or in place including the nearly 10-year odyssey to make the growth fees for roads as muscular as legally possible.

It also needs to be pointed out that once a home is built and fees paid, it is no longer new growth but falls on the side of the equation where the tab is picked up either on the back of existing residents or by other means.

That brings up the point of having a plan that you craft and stick with to get road work done. That doesn’t mean elected leaders shouldn’t tweak it more than once a year. But what it does mean is you rate what your biggest needs — or even wants — are and spend limited resources accordingly.

An argument can be made that if the city has $450,000 to spend on traffic signals or the council is willing to cannibalize other road projects for traffic signals in locations that aren’t on the capital improvement project list, they might not want to make that decision in a vacuum wrapped around just one piece of the puzzle that is going together as Manteca grows.

There are probably more than a few people who would argue $450,000 would be better spent first on traffic signals at Woodward and Main Street where traffic congestion is already a problem.

Based on expectations of how drivers will change their habits when the Atherton Drive work is done, the city likely will see the biggest surge of traffic for a number of years being vehicles turning left from southbound Airport Way to head east on Atherton. Stop signs could be a more prudent answer.