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Highway 165 realignment progresses amid federal funding uncertainty
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Despite recently passing a major milestone required for receiving state and federal funding, the Highway 165 realignment project currently faces an uncertain future due to the threatened impending bankruptcy of the federal Highway Trust Fund – a possibility that some are calling the “transportation cliff” that has already stalled critical road repairs throughout the nation.

After almost a decade since the City of Turlock entered into an agreement with Merced and Stanislaus counties to help prepare an engineering report scoping the transportation improvements needed along Highway 165, also known as Lander Avenue, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors approved the Final Project Study Report that will be sent to Caltrans for comment.

 Although the Project Study Report serves as an important tool in receiving state and federal transportation funds, the project might not receive any allocation of federal funds in the near future as Congress struggles with developing a plan to replenish the Highway Trust Fund – the federal transportation and infrastructure fund financed by gasoline taxes. 

With the funds set to expire by August, and no plan yet in sight, thousands of projects and contracts could be put on hold amid the uncertainty during the summer construction season. In one economic analysis released last week, the Obama administration warned 700,000 jobs tied to the fund and its uncertain future are at stake.

"Right now, there are more than 100,000 active projects paving roads and rebuilding bridges, modernizing our transit systems," Obama said Wednesday. "States might have to choose which ones to put the brake on. Some states are already starting to slow down work because they’re worried Congress won’t untangle the gridlock on time. And that’s something you should remember every time you see a story about a construction project stopped, or machines idled, or workers laid off their jobs."

With the fundamental problem being that gasoline taxes alone are no longer enough to finance the Highway Trust Fund due to declining fuel use across the states, many politicians have discussed increasing tariffs and tolls. With the approaching midterm elections, however, neither the White House nor Congress wants to raise those taxes, resulting in disagreements about how to replenish the fund without them.

Although Highway 165 is considered a High Priority Project, and has earmarked state funding in the amount of $400,000 that was authorized to conduct a project study report for the development of a new Highway 99 interchange between SR 165 and Bradbury Road, serving the Hilmar and Turlock region, in addition to having $1 million approved for environmental studies included in Caltrans’ PAD & ED phase – only a fraction of the total anticipated environmental costs — the project has yet to identify any of the expected construction costs. According to the Project Study Report, the Lander Avenue project could see a hefty price tag of nearly $200 million, while possibly being completed by 2020.

The approved project study report, which includes two alternative plans, will be the basis and foundation for any future projects for this portion of SR 165, and provide critically needed access to Highway 99 from the City of Turlock, the community of Hilmar and other surrounding communities such as Delhi and Stevinson. In addition to the construction of a new bridge at Merced River along Highway 165, the project will greatly reduce traffic congestion and help trucks bypass the City of Hilmar.