Stimulus at work: $1.1 billion will fund Bay Area transportation projects, road repairs

March 26, 2009


Mar. 25--Curt Dunn dreads his commute along Interstate 280 near Meridian Avenue in San Jose, where traffic from nearby ramps flows unimpeded onto a crawling freeway in desperate need of metering lights.

Carey Richard loathes turning onto busy Blossom Hill Road from University Avenue in Los Gatos, where there are no left-turn arrows.

And Karl Sonkin checks his shock absorbers after driving down bumpy Lytton Avenue in Palo Alto, which he says "has to be Silicon Valley's rottenest street."

And now, for a change, some good news: These and other long-neglected road problems will be fixed soon, as more than $1.1 billion in federal stimulus money pours into the Bay Area, with $86 million headed to Santa Clara County.

Bids will be going out within weeks, and dozens of roads will be repaved by the end of the year, while work on a few bigger road improvements will also get under way. The money is just a trickle of what's needed, but it's a start to rebuilding aging streets and could lead to 18,000 Bay Area construction jobs -- in an industry where unemployment hovers near 20 percent.

"This is about jobs, jobs, jobs," said Caltrans Director Will Kempton, whose agency has allocated $625 million for work on 57 projects statewide. "We plan on starting the first of these projects within 60 days -- putting people to work as soon as possible."

To use the popular new buzzword, these are the projects that are "shovel-ready." Nearly

$500 million worth of work will begin this summer in the Bay Area -- projects given priority by cities and other local agencies. An additional $625 million has been earmarked by Caltrans for highway upgrades that will occur over the next couple of years. And $12 billion more will flow through Congress for transit upgrades that will take place later, such as high-speed rail lines favored by the Obama administration.

About 80 percent of the first infusion of stimulus dollars goes to maintenance, such as repaving city streets, and to buying new seats for worn-out BART trains and replacing sooty diesel buses with hybrids.

The needs are great. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently projected a $43 billion shortfall over the next couple of decades, a figure that will be revised upward next month because of the deep recession. San Jose has a backlog of $283 million to properly maintain its 2,370 miles of streets, and the city faces an annual shortfall of $15 million for road repairs. Santa Cruz needs $30 million to keep its streets smooth.

"Every million dollars helps," said Santa Cruz Public Works Director Mark Dettle, "but the stimulus money is not going to fix all of the infrastructure needs of the city, the county, the state or the nation.

"The high expectations that have been set around the stimulus are quite different. I hope these funds keep our contractors working until the economy starts to regain some momentum."

Meters, paving

You'll see a lot of important but relatively low-cost improvements, such as metering lights along I-280 through downtown San Jose for $12 million, or repaving Bascom Avenue near the Pruneyard in Campbell for $563,000. Big, expensive efforts such as rebuilding the Doyle Drive approach to the Golden Gate Bridge or laying tracks for high-speed rail will get a lot of cash, but will need millions of dollars more.

Local agencies need to come up with some of the money to complete the stimulus projects. Los Altos is getting $215,000 to repair pavement at five intersections on San Antonio Road, a $700,000 project.

"Though the amount we will receive is not a whole lot," said Larry Lind, a city engineer, "it is still money we certainly will welcome."

There are a few big-ticket items -- turning the carpool lane on Interstate 680 into a toll lane, and possibly a rail line connecting BART trains at the Oakland Coliseum to the Oakland airport. But pavement repair takes top billing.

"There is a lot of little stuff and very little big-ticket stuff, the monumental projects that people will recognize a generation or three down the road," said John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "But we've neglected our transportation system for so long, putting off routine maintenance, that we need to act."

The biggest chunk of already approved spending is going to transit. BART will get $65 million that will help buy new seats and increase space inside 105 aging cars, so riders can get on and off more easily. The Valley Transportation Authority is in line for $47.3 million to buy 107 hybrid buses, replacing 12- to 14-year-old diesels.

Then there's high-speed rail. Congress has set aside $8 billion for superfast trains across the country, and California is hoping for a good-sized chunk of that pot. It has the only such project approved by voters, who in the fall endorsed a $10 billion measure to begin building the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco segment of a high-speed rail line that will eventually run to San Diego and Sacramento.

Not on the list is the BART-to-San Jose extension, which at $6.1 billion would be the biggest public works effort ever in Santa Clara County. But it needs more money to construct a tunnel through downtown and is several years away from being built.

Commute relief

Disappointed? Not motorists like Dunn, who is fed up with the congestion that marks his daily drive down I-280.

"During the afternoon commute, the ramp from Moorpark and Leigh Avenue to south 280 at Meridian is either clogged up with a million cars or they're zooming down the ramp way too fast, making the merge terrifying," he said. "When traffic is moving fast, the two lanes dropping down from Moorpark make this exit a gantlet? -- cover me; I'm changing lanes."

Be patient. Metering lights are coming.

Contact Gary Richards at [email protected] or (408) 920-5335.