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Modesto, county dismiss Turlock improvement project
stancog pic
The city of Turlock was hoping StanCOG would back an improvement project at the Fulkerth Road and Highway 99 interchange, but instead they opted for two Modesto area projects. - photo by Courier file photo

In a tense showdown for transportation improvement funds between members of the Stanislaus County Council of Governments policy board, the city of Modesto and Stanislaus County came out on top.

The battle came as StanCOG prepared to recommend projects within Stanislaus County to receive funds from the State Transportation Improvement Program - a program that provides state transportation funds for highway and regional transit improvements. With $14.7 million in state funding becoming available for projects within the region, member agencies of StanCOG submitted regional projects that they believed best-met the criteria to receive funding.

The top three projects considered for funding included Turlock's Highway 99/Fulkerth Road Interchange project, Modesto's State Route 132 West Freeway project, and Stanislaus County's widening of McHenry Avenue to San Joaquin County.

While the conversation began as a simple discussion of which projects met the California Transportation Commission's criteria best, it quickly turned into banter of north versus south cities - primarily between Modesto and Turlock - after StanCOG staff recommended the allocation of funds go to Modesto's SR 132 project and the widening of McHenry Avenue.

"Why wasn't the Turlock project given any weight?" asked Waterford City councilmember Charles Goeken, sparking a debate that would end in frustration amongst several board members.

"With limited funding, staff had to make sure the projects chosen met the criteria," said Carlos Yamzon, StanCOG executive director. "We had to consider if the project was significant enough to say that it is interregionally beneficial. We nominated the two that we felt were."

StanCOG deputy executive director Rosa Park offered her analysis on why the Fulkerth project had received the short end of the stick.

"Turlock didn't prepare themselves fully for this cycle," said Park. "Since one of the criteria is ‘current system demands', we didn't feel it met the criteria because the Fulkerth project is still seen as one for future growth demands."

Representing Turlock on the StanCOG board, City Councilmember Forrest White disagreed strongly with Park's view that the Fulkerth project was insignificant.

"I thought our job as a board is to plan for the future," said White. "If we don't plan for the future, and only do things based on a current demand when it becomes an issue, we'll have problems like Pelandale each year. It has a demand that isn't that far in the future."

White also argued that StanCOG staff and board members had not recommended a project south of Modesto for STIP funds in years.

"When is the last time any money was put south of Modesto?" asked White. "This board has never had a south county priority. Sure we are moving dirt, but it just happens to only be dirt in the north," said White. He also argued that the State Route 132 project would simply create another access for Bay Area residents to use Stanislaus as a "bedroom community."

While Yazmon admitted that it had been several cycles since a project south of Modesto had been chosen for STIP funds, it was not an issue of favoritism or preference.

Park quickly took to the podium to defend her recommendation to discredit Turlock's Fulkerth project.

"I would like to remind everyone at this board sitting in their big fat comfy chairs that this isn't a Turlock versus Modesto thing," said Park. "I mean my god, north or south? I can't help but be reminded of the Civil War, and when you start talking like that I find it completely disrespectful to this agency. This is completely about which projects have the most current demands."

Although many board members continued to state that this was not a north versus south issue, Turlock leaders continued to express their frustration. After listening to the conversation silently, Turlock Mayor John Lazar stood up and stormed out of the boardroom.

Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden addressed the board saying that the Fulkerth project should be chosen as it would help stimulate job growth in Stanislaus County.

"Fulkerth ranked as the top project by traffic professionals. This is not a north/south war, but it's about the fact that we have an important project that was ranked top by those working in traffic and yet we're tossed to the side and ignored," said Wasden. "We are currently talking with businesses that will bring commercial and industrial growth that will bring 1,000 jobs and hundreds of trucks coming in and out of Turlock. That doesn't just benefit Turlock, but the whole region. After coming to Turlock, Blue Diamond began hiring from three surrounding counties including our own. The choice is simple, we should choose a project that will bring economic and job growth to our county."

Former Turlock City councilmember and StanCOG board member Mary Jackson echoed the importance of the Fulkerth interchange project for bringing jobs into Stanislaus County.

"When Turlock got Blue Diamond you all were very jealous," said Jackson. "Do not punish us for that. The most important thing is bringing jobs, and I mean a lot of jobs, into our area. One thousand jobs to this area is not something to toss to the side."

Other StanCOG board members felt Turlock was simply looking out for itself.

"You're focused on Turlock, and you can't just sit there and focus on yourself," said County Supervisor Terry Withrow. "It disturbs me how focused on yourself you are."

Patterson Mayor and StanCOG chairman Luis Molina noted that the board needed to work together to do what was best for the county as a whole.

"I know it's hard to put away your jurisdictional hat and put your regional hat on," said Molina. "It's a shame that we didn't have more community input here to make a more informed decision."

The board ultimately decided in a 10-4 vote to recommend the McHenry Avenue and SR 132 projects, with one final blow given by Turlock Councilman White, who said that he would urge Turlock City councilmembers to withdraw any future support for a county-wide transportation tax, severely lessening the chances of such a tax ever passing.

"We're going to move forward with this project on our own," said White. "It's obvious that you've said ‘Do it on your own', and so that's what we'll do."