Next month, city leaders will join other San Joaquin County officials in Washington, DC on their annual lobbying trip, known as One Voice, in hopes of securing federal funding for various projects in Stockton and throughout the county. The San Joaquin Council of Governments (SJCOG) claims that over $100 million has been appropriated from these trips since 2001 for everything from well replacements to river dredging. Any federal dollars would be a boon to Stockton, which has been snubbed for many programs in recent years, most notably President Obama’s Promise Zones. So what are city officials hoping to get money for in 2014?
Highway and street widening, mostly.
This year, the Stockton officials will be searching for funds for three specific projects: $20 million for completion of the Miner Avenue Streetscape Plan; $20 million for widening Lower Sac Road and improving its Eight Mile Road intersection, and; $7 million to complete the designs for widening I-5 from Hammer Lane to Eight Mile Road and new off/on ramps at Otto Drive.
While each of these projects involves roads, the one that jumps out is the I-5 widening. SCL has previously reported on the lack of economic benefits from highway widening, but Stockton officials are set to ask for millions to make I-5 even bigger. To be sure, $7 million is not much considering the huge price tags for highway projects of this nature. But remember, the $7 million request is just to finish designing these projects. The final cost will ultimately be in the hundreds of millions.
It would be nice to see city leaders use this trip for more immediate needs. Stockton will be fine without another lane on I-5, while there are numerous other issues that could benefit greatly from even small infusions of cash. These include restoring maintenance to the city’s ailing trees, addressing blight in the downtown gateway area just south of the crosstown freeway, updating and implementing the city’s outdated bike master plan, and cleaning up brownfield sites in and around downtown, to name a few. Securing funds for these types of issues would yield far higher benefits than the design of an extra interstate lane.
While I can see the value of a new on-ramp at Otto Drive (drivers won’t have to travel as far to hop on the interstate, saving time and gas, cutting back on emissions, and so on), we know that expanding interstates brings little economic value, especially considering that any slight decreases in congestion will be negated within a few years due to induced demand. Moreover, the city will more than likely update the General Plan in the near future to cut down on building north of Eight Mile Road, so increasing highway capacity past Hammer Lane is probably not necessary.
Some of the requested funding is definitely needed, such as the $20 million being sought for the Miner Avenue Streetscape Plan (the same amount was requested last year, to no avail). Unlike highway construction’s seemingly never ending flow of cash in the Central Valley, funding for projects such as the Miner Ave plan has been difficult to come by. And while the price tag for Miner Ave may seem steep, street scaping projects such as this are proven to provide tangible economic benefits to their communities. A revitalized Miner Ave will have a great impact on the overall vitality of downtown, while a new lane in each direction on I-5 north of Hammer Lane won’t do much more than to shave a couple minutes off the drive to Walmart.
The beneficiaries of the One Voice trips are not always road/highway projects; these trips have often provided funding in some much needed areas. The Altamont Corridor Express, San Joaquin RTD and even the Miracle Mile have been appropriated federal dollars in the past as a result of this yearly excursion, according to SJCOG. But, in the end, the One Voice trip is less about digging for federal funding and more about where our region’s priorities lay at this moment. Should the city be asking for funding for an interstate highway that has already benefited from millions spent on construction?