MCAG votes to divert funds from Los Banos Bypass project

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comApril 17, 2014 

The Los Banos Bypass project will no longer have priority for future funding from regional transportation fees, the Merced County Association of Governments decided Thursday in a 8-to-3 vote.

The MCAG Governing Board voted to dissolve a 2011 resolution that promised the $431 million bypass project would be first in line for funding. The money comes from Regional Transportation Impact Fees, paid by developers of new commercial or residential structures to fund transportation projects.

Chairman and Merced County District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion, Dos Palos City Councilman Michael McGlynn and Los Banos Mayor Pro Tem Deborah Lewis voted against the action.

Since establishing the transportation fees in 2005, Merced County as well as the cities of Merced, Atwater and Gustine have paid into the program. Dos Palos and Los Banos are participating in the fees for residential developments only.

The total stands at $9.6 million as of March, said MCAG spokeswoman Lori Flanders. Since 2005, the city of Merced has contributed $4.4 million, followed by Merced County’s contribution of $3.9 million and Los Banos, which has put in $1.7 million. Livingston is the only city that doesn’t contribute to the program, but city officials there are trying to pass an ordinance to begin participating.

Rescinding the resolution allows officials to use $3 million of the collected fees toward a grant to fund another construction project, the Campus Parkway, which will connect Highway 99 and UC Merced.

They want to apply for $13 million from a TIGER grant, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, but it requires a 20 percent match. The $3 million from the transportation fees will be used toward the match, along with money from Merced, UC Merced, Merced County and the state.

The most vocal opponent of diverting the funding from the bypass project was Los Banos Mayor Mike Villalta, who was absent Thursday because his father suffered a heart attack. Lewis attended in his absence and relayed a strong message.

“Los Banos cannot support this resolution,” Lewis said. “It’s really unfortunate the money we put in this pot is being stripped to be used for something else. I think most of the residents in Los Banos would be very disappointed that we collected money from developers to be used for something else.”

McGlynn agreed. “The city of Dos Palos joins Los Banos in opposing this measure,” he said. “The need for the (bypass) project is obvious. We believe it should be expedited and not pushed down the road.”

On the flip side, supporters said the TIGER grant is available for projects that are “shovel-ready” — and the Los Banos Bypass project isn’t there yet. They pointed out the bypass project was turned down for TIGER grant funding and support from Caltrans.

“Campus Parkway is the only shovel-ready project we have in Merced County at this time,” said Merced County District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh. “So we have to do something if we’re going to move forward with the TIGER grant.”

Walsh said the regional transportation fees bring in about $700,000 a year, but the bypass project costs more than $400 million. “It would take 500 years to raise enough (money),” he said. “So clearly, we can’t do this with just local dollars.”

O’Banion said he’s been the subject of “personal attacks” over this issue in the last month, before voting against the item.

In an interview Thursday, Villalta called O’Banion’s vote “meaningless” because he said the supervisor voted in favor of the TIGER grant last month — knowing it meant severing the funding for the bypass project.

“Our supervisor knew that the resolution had to be broken in order for the TIGER grant to have a chance at the federal level,” he said. “His vote today was ceremonial because the damage was already done when he voted for the TIGER grant on March 20.”

O’Banion could not be reached for further comment Thursday.

Officials said the Los Banos Bypass project is still the number one priority on the Regional Transportation Plan and Thursday’s action doesn’t change that.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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