Some much-needed road upgrades still en route

May 20, 2007 11:00 pm

Completion of the East Sonora Bypass's first stage in the summer of 2004 hardly brought an end to Tuolumne County's traffic problems.

Two more stages totaling 2.7 miles must be built before the expressway connects with the four-lane section of Highway 108 that begins at the base of the Twain Harte Grade.

And, as part of bypass construction agreements with the state, Caltrans has bequeathed the busiest road in the county to local government. Once Highway 108, Mono Way now belongs to the city of Sonora and Tuolumne County. And, with stretches of this road carrying up to 22,000 cars a day, improvements are sorely needed.

Finally, although Jamestown now has its first traffic signal, Highway 108 is often crowded passing Fifth Avenue and Main Street. And driving through the old mining town won't get any smoother as more commercial and residential development comes to the area.

But there is good news.

County and city road planners have not been sitting on their hands for the past three years: Four-foot shoulders should be added to a narrow stretch of Mono between Hess Avenue and Standard Road by fall. Sonora is looking at options for five-laning all of Mono from Greenley Road to Fir Drive — a crowded half-mile section that now varies from two to three to four lanes in quick succession.

Likewise, progress is being made on Stage 2 of the East Sonora Bypass, which would extend from Standard Road to Via Este. Construction could come by 2011. Five-laning 108 the length of Jamestown and adding a signal at Fifth Avenue are also in the planning stages.

Not only are these needed projects being planned, but building them will not cost county and city taxpayers an arm and a leg. Caltrans funds and mitigation fees paid into a road fund by developers since the late 1980s will pay for virtually all of this work.

A job-by-job look at what's planned and who pays:

Mono shoulders — As the East Sonora Bypass's Stage 1 neared construction, Caltrans agreed to help the county add bike and pedestrian lanes between Hess and Mono. The four-foot shoulders will be built to high weight standard and could later become part of additional traffic lanes. Caltrans will pay more than $2 million of the $2.4 million project cost. A bid call is planned for June.

Fir-Greenley widening — With the approval of county supervisors, developer fees would be used to widen this contracting-and-expanding section of Mono to a uniform five lanes. Paid by residential and commercial projects since the late 1980s, accumulated developer fees now amount to about $11 million and the pot is growing by $1 million to $1.5 million annually. Alternatives are now being studied and work could begin in 2009.

Bypass Stage 2 — Right-of-way purchase and design for the 1.7-mile project are fully funded and next month the California Transportation Commission will vote on allocating another $48.5 million in state funds. Construction of the $60 million project could begin by 2011. The county's contribution would be less than 10 percent of the total.

Jamestown improvements — This widening and signal project has yet to be scheduled. Half the costs would be covered by the state and half by developer fees.

County and city transportation planners have for years kept the lines of communication with Caltrans open and the funding pressure on. Their work helped secure funding and construction of the East Sonora Bypass's first stage in 2004 and now is paying dividends as Stage 2 and other needed projects near.

Although unpopular with some, developer fees are now proving to be valuable source of funds both for construction and to leverage additional cash from the state.

Our road planners should be commended for their foresight and energy in helping the county meet its growing needs.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.