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Old plans for new bridge dusted off
The county is ready to pull the trigger to perform environmental studies for a new bridge linking Ceres and Modesto between Garner Road and Faith Home Road. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The county will soon launch a study into an idea to build a new bridge spanning the Tuolumne River northeast of Ceres as an alternative to the congested Mitchell Road Bridge which now carries 80,000 vehicles each day.

A new connection between Garner Road north of the river and Faith Home Road south of it would help reduce traffic congestion between Modesto and Turlock during the commute hours off of Mitchell Road, which bears more red lights with time. There are now a total of eight signalized intersections from Highway 99 to the Tuolumne River.

County and city of Ceres planners first began talking about a Garner-Faith Home connection prior to 2004. Ceres officials have planned for Faith Home Road to become a six-lane expressway but have been waiting for the new connection.

Stanislaus County Public Works Director Matt Machado said the county has been collecting developer fees for the corridor study and anticipates spending $1 million on preliminary studies and environmental work just for the one-mile span from the Garner/Finch to Faith Home/Hatch intersections. The bridge, if built, would stretch over the flood plain and river for a mile, connecting the bluff at the dead-end of Garner Road to the south bluff located east of the River Oaks Golf Course.

Requests for proposals will be going out this month for firms to "bid" on the work.

"We do want to get through the environmental documentation," said Machado. "That's even more important than the preliminary design. You've got to understand what the environmental impacts are. You've got to know that you can get a permit to get over the river and over the flood plain and all that stuff before you can even think about designing a project. It doesn't make sense to design something if environmentally it's going to have problems."

When the Bee story broke about the renewed study for the Garner-Faith Home bridge, at least one county supervisor was scratching his head.

"None of us on the board knew anything about it," said County Supervisor Jim DeMartini. "This thing caught me by surprise. Normally you don't go do a story in the newspaper like that without telling the board about it. It's kind of irked me. That didn't go over too well here.

"I don't know where he thinks he's going to get the money for a project that big because the Modesto Bee talked about a $50 million bridge but there's a lot more work that's got to be done than just a bridge so you can add $120 million more on top of that."

DeMartini said since he joined the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG) in 2005 he hasn't heard much talk about the connection. That may account for why DeMartini was surprised at the news, said Machado.

DeMartini believed StanCOG had "just dropped it" due to "horrendous" costs.

"The best of my recollection is going from Highway 99 across the Tuolumne River into the Beard Industrial Tract was something like $180 million. There wasn't any money for it and there really wasn't a lot of super amount of demand for it although it would relieve a lot of truck traffic."

Machado insists that the Garner-Faith Home connection was never dropped and has "been on our radar for quite some time," and may not have been fresh on supervisors' minds because so much time has passed. The corridor study, Machado said, was included in a list of future corridor studies and transportation impact fee program approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2010.

"We're trying do the environmental work, maybe some preliminary design, trying to see the viability, the cost, the scope, the potential schedule and all that," said Machado. "We're not talking about building anything yet. There's a lot we need to do."

DeMartini believed that Beard Industrial Tract owners didn't want the bridge as it would congest the industrial area with passenger travel. Machado understood otherwise, saying Beard leaders desire the connection so that trucks can avoid connecting to Highway 99 via a traffic signal laden route on Mitchell.

"I don't want to speak for the Beard Industrial Land Company but they've been very supportive," said Machado. "They see the need for this connection. It serves them more than anybody else, actually. Mitchell is extremely congested with a ton of signal lights. It's a bottle neck for their trucks."

The county will seek lots of public input during the study phase, he said. If Beard doesn't want the project, it will probably be abandoned, Machado said.

Environmental studies could take three years or longer with the bigger question of funding needing to be resolved. Machado said developer fees could pay for part of the bridge and more money could be available if the county is successful in passing a half-cent sales tax for local transportation next year.

The county is only interested in "staying focused on the gap" between Ceres and Modesto and what those costs might be and plan for additional improvements later. Those corridor projects may include improvements to Service and Faith Home, interchange work at Keyes Road/99 and the Garner viaduct.

Officials would have to weigh how revival of the Garner-Faith Home connection would impact other more pressing projects. DeMartini said the county is still trying to develop the Central Corridor, the Kansas Avenue bypass, a project he said has been in the works for 50 years.

"All they've done is just spend money on engineering and some drawings," said DeMartini. "It's been just a wonderful project for attorneys and consultants and engineers."

StanCOG has approved funding for the Maze corridor project, the supervisor said.

Other big ticket local transportation projects include the Service/Mitchell/99 interchange while a South County Corridor, or Turlock to I-5 connection has also been waiting its turn. There is also the North County Corridor, he said.

Local government officials are pinning their hopes that a flood of road monies will develop if voters in Stanislaus County approve a half-cent sales tax increase in November. Surveys indicate that voters are closer than they have been in years in their willingness to pass the tax, which will help cities make repairs to roads, fund expensive road projects and help bring the ACE train line.