Platitudes might win elections but they don’t fix streets.
Gary Singh gets that.
It is why the biggest road project in terms of impacts on all Manteca residents — and arguably that of many others the in San Joaquin-Stanislaus counties area — may end up being even bigger impact at least 10 years ahead of schedule.
The project is the long overdue upgrades to the Highway 99/120 Bypass interchange and its approaches needed to end its reign as the deadliest and one of the most congested freeway segments in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Your chances of getting in a wreck the last 1½ mile eastbound stretch on the 120 Bypass before reaching the interchange is six homes higher than normal on the average stretch of a California freeway.
The city has no skin in the solution — except for funding to make sure the replacement bridge for Austin Road is four lanes instead of two. It is a state highway project financed primarily with state gas tax funds.
The project breaking ground in 2021 wasn’t even planned to be addressed until 2035. That’s before Manteca led by former Mayor Steve DeBrum pushed the issue. DeBrum took the point work with leaders throughout the area to make the case the congested interchange was impacting the overall regional economy by slowing the movement of goods to market and that much of the lost time — and bloodshed — was borne disproportionately by non-Manteca residents.
The result was the region working together through the San Joaquin Council of Governments — the pivotal local agency that shepherds transportation projects that impacts primarily San Joaquin County as well as beyond — moved up the project significantly in priority. That led to a three-phase $131.5 million holistic approach involving both freeways as well as Austin Road. The three phased approach was needed because of the limited amount of money California has and the huge demand statewide for backlogged road projects.
DeBrum played a key role in his position as Manteca’s representative on SJCOG to get the project on the state’s radar and for construction of the phase to start in 12 to 14 months from now. Singh, who was appointed by the council to replace DeBrum when he wasn’t re-elected, has picked up where DeBrum left off advocating for Manteca.
The elaborate — and expensive — braided ramps that involve bridge structures to allow the southbound off-ramp and northbound on-ramp to Highway 99 from Austin Road to stay open and make sure the congestion and operational fixes for the two freeways work aren’t until the $53 million third phase. The need for the braided interchanges is due to the close proximity of the Austin Road interchange to the 120 Bypass/99 interchange.
Singh is working behind the scenes as a SJCOG member to see if the pieces to the puzzle in the second and third phases can be moved about so that the braided ramps can be wedded to the first phase that now stands at $54.4 million.
There is roughly half of the $26 million needed for the second phase that the state has identified as available that could go toward the cost of the braided ramps. If Caltrans can make it work and is onboard, the ramps would be open in 2023 instead of being closed for at least 10 years.
If the braided ramps go in as part of the first phase, it would help take pressure off the 120 Bypass/Main Street interchange as Manteca grows in the next 10 years. It would also open up one of the largest planned industrial parks in the region that has employment ramifications for people from Merced to Stockton who are commuting over the Altamont Pass to work.
It’s not the first time that Singh has worked at re-thinking credible proposals by engineers and government staff to make a road project that people are clamoring for even more effective
The best example is the work on the 100 to 400 blocks of North Main Street that a bid will be awarded for in October and work started in January.
Singh was in his first year on the council when the staff came back with a way to take out the much maligned landscape bulb-outs in the 100 block of North Main. The staff solution was a $1 million redo of the block that would have removed the bulbs and put two southbound lanes in place and one northbound lane.
It would have been political expedient for the council at the time to take the solution and run with it especially given how the travel corridor congestion the bulbs contribute to irk a lot of Manteca motorists that vote.
It made no sense to Singh for the city to make its third do over of the 100 block of North Main in 18 years, spend $1million, and likely have to come back in 10 years and spend even more money to again redo that block and the 200 to 400 blocks to remove two-lane traffic tourniquet so Main Street so the heaviest traveled Manteca corridor could be four lanes from the 120 Bypass to Lathrop Road.
Singh, over the course of a year, convinced his council colleagues to reject the solution and direct instead the entire four blocks become four lanes.
The political risk soon became apparent. Eighteen months later staff came back with a $3.4 million plan to do the work that meant the city needed to come up with $2.4 million to remove the bulb-outs as well as address long-term traffic needs.
The price tag bothered the current council. And after a major shakeup at city hall 10 months ago, told staff — primarily mid-management that was left in place — to find a way to move the project forward by finding the funding needed.
The result was using pavers with French drains running beneath at curbside to eliminate gutters to allow four travel lanes and a continuous middle turn lane to fit within the current street width. It saved the expense needed to relocate streets lights and traffic signals and replace sidewalk by widening the street. Staff also made it a four-for-the-price-of-one endeavor. The French drains will also address problematic street flooding, beautify the four blocks, reduce ongoing maintenance costs significantly due to the longevity of street pavers versus asphalt and reduced the cost by more than 60 percent to less than $1.5 million.
Singh is also working toward an out-of-the-box solution to get work done on the Airport Way corridor sooner than later.
It does so by getting trucks off the corridor, eliminating the need to widen Airport Way from Daniels Street to Yosemite to six lanes by going to four lanes and eliminating the mega-expensive move to relocate PG&E transmission power poles as well as a major transmission tower structure.
Getting more effective and cost-effective solutions in the long run that are more beneficial and attainable is the critical grunt work, creative thinking, grunt work, forward thinking, and insisting staff do the same that allows council members to move Manteca forward.