Merced County does not always get its fair share. As elected officials, we see it on almost a daily basis. Funding formulas typically favor more urban and coastal areas while communities in the Valley get what’s leftover.
In a recent interview with the Sun-Star, Gov. Jerry Brown agreed saying, “The Central Valley often feels it is being neglected – and often it is.”
That is about to change.
In the past six months, the state legislature, local officials and Merced County voters have taken enormous strides that will infuse billions of dollars into our transportation infrastructure. We all know that our roads have been neglected and need to be repaired – to the tune of $130 billion in deferred maintenance statewide. Finally, we have taken the steps necessary to getting that work done.
The first big step occurred last November when the Merced voters resoundingly passed Measure V to dedicate a half-cent sales tax to transportation improvements.
The second occurred three weeks ago when the state legislature approved a measure to raise gas taxes for the first time in almost 25 years.
These two measures guarantee that every city in Merced County, and the county itself, will more than double funds for road maintenance each year. All told, our cities and Merced County can expect their road funds to increase from $13 million each year to $33 million each year.
In addition, SB 1 allocates $200 million in money specifically for self-help counties each year. In the past, Merced could not compete for these funds, but with the passage of Measure V we now have access as one of the state’s newest self-help counties.
Standing alone, the transportation dollars promised by SB 1 were not enough. For an area like ours that has been so neglected, as Gov. Brown said, we needed more just to get back up to par.
First, we needed a constitutional amendment that protects this new revenue from being redirected by the state for other purposes. The Legislature passed a state constitutional amendment that will appear on the November 2018 ballot prohibiting the state from diverting any of this revenue. This will be in the constitution itself, and can only be undone by the California’s voters.
Second, this area needed to see significant improvements to our commuter rail access. The transportation deal included an additional $400 million to bring ACE commuter rail south through Modesto, Ceres and into Merced, giving us a link to BART, San Francisco and Sacramento. Increased rail transportation also takes cars off the road to reduce congestion for commuters on Interstate 580 and Highway 99.
There’s more. UC Merced is a keystone of our economic future. The transportation deal also included $100 million to complete the Campus Parkway to connect the growing campus to Highway 99. This will complete half of the “Merced loop project” and free up funding to further construction of the Atwater-Merced Expressway.
We now have a clear path toward real transportation accomplishments in Merced County. Local roads will see improvements on a scale never experienced, and our regional projects will be more competitive for state and federal resources.
It is time to take advantage of this opportunity. These are big challenges, but they are doable. We now have the resources to make them happen.