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East County Is Taking Flight

31 December 2015 Written by  By Don Huntington
Published in January 2016 Articles

Trilink 239 is a highway developement project that will ease drive times and promote economic delvelopement throughout the region.

The good news is that now, following 56 years of ongoing research, numerous feasibility studies, and just plain waffling by countless boards, agencies, and commissions, the plan is finally getting off the ground. The bad news is that the County’s Transportation Authority, which is currently managing the project, plans to invest another ten years of study before turning over the first spade full of dirt, following which the actual construction will proceed at a snail’s pace and won’t be completed for another 10 years. So, best case, the whole 35-mile-long project, from introduction to completion will take more than twice as long as was required for completion of the original 70,000-plus mile Interstate Highway System.

All of us residents of East County should be chagrined and disappointed at the glacial progress of the project because of the enormous impact TriLink-239 will have on our entire region. The route will ultimately transform public and commercial transportation within East County and with Tri-Valley destinations by opening the east and south corridors that are currently missing from the local transportation map. The improved regional connectivity will greatly relieve mobility issues facing East Contra Costa County as well as relieving congestion on Interstate 580, which currently turns into a parking ot twice every weekday.

The transportation links created by TriLink 239 will give a great boost to the area economy. The improved accessibility will greatly encourage commercial and industrial development. Shops and factories will spring up. The currently empty office complexes will refill. We will be able to ride the crest of the Manufacturing, Wholesale Marketing, and Transportation industries, which are the fastest-growing segments of East Contra Costa and Western San Joaquin economies. As a result, we will finally begin to create jobs and thus offer a large number of residents the opportunity of working near their homes, which will prove to be the ultimate fix to our horrible commute issues. A healthy stream of cars would eventually begin to flow in the opposite direction of the current commute as people begin driving to jobs in Brentwood and Antioch from their Central County homes.

Moving freight by rail is inefficient for distances shorter than 500 miles, or so. Therefore, key regional freight distribution centers located in the Tracy area currently move their cargo down Byron Highway because it is the shortest route to East Contra Costa County. Increasing the freight hauling efficiency for those trucks will play a critical role in encouraging the regions’ economic development. A further positive effect will extend beyond our local region when the TriLink project coordinates with the M 580 Marine Highway Corridor project and thus become part of the freight transportation network for traffic moving products and goods from Oakland’s sprawling container facility and from Stockton and Sacramento’s large unloading wharves.

A further advantage of the TriLink 239 project would be to impose standards that will improve roadway safety by permitting truck traffic to move down roadways that are actually designed and built to accommodate their size and speed. Rural roadways like Vasco Road take a terrible toll in physical damage, human trauma, and loss of life. At many points, the lack of space for pedestrian and bicycle lanes imposes a constant threat to non-vehicular traffic. The greatly improved traffic infrastructure will reduce the hazards that drivers face while navigating the sharp curves, narrow lanes, and steep grades of the current outdated and overused traffic arteries with their limited and often non-existent passing lanes.

The TriLink project would have the further advantage of improving the safety of people living in the flood-prone areas of Mountain House, Knightsen, Discovery Bay, Oakley, and Antioch. Levee failures caused by heavy rains or earthquakes could cause large numbers of people to flee for their lives. If such an apocalyptic disaster will only wait two decades for TriLink 239 completion, the new route will provide an effective evacuation corridor out of the disaster zone as well as facilitating the movement of emergency response resources into the zone.

We shouldn’t have to wait 20 years, or longer, for everything in the TriLink project to be finished before we do anything. A small but critical piece of the puzzle is a planned connector between Byron Highway and Vasco Road. This could be easily accomplished by simply extending Armstrong Road to an interchange on Vasco. The connector would boost the region’s economy by moving Byron Airport from its current condition, languishing as a back-water facility simply because the airport is only accessible by driving over a two-lane road and then along an unimproved farm lane that is marked at one point by a yellow warning sign advising reducing speeds to 10 MPH.

The county purchased the property in 1973 with the intention of building an airport on the site, but it took two decades of bureaucratic maneuverings, funding analysis, and feasibility studies with the result that airport construction didn’t actually begin until 1993. Unfortunately, the planners apparently neglected to include any return on investment analysis during their two decades of research because they completely overlooked the need — which seems so clear in hindsight — of providing for the development of commercial enterprises that would cause the airport to be of any practical use.

Ron Reagan is chairperson of the Contra Costa County Aviation Advisory Committee and member of the Contra Costa Land Use Commission — charged to oversee any planning that goes forward ensuring that it will be consistent with the airport’s General Plan. Ron reports that the Airport Connector piece would cost an estimated $70 million — a figure that planners claim to be “fat,” meaning that actual construction costs may come in below that figure, and possibly a long way below. The happy fact is that Armstrong Road passes within 900 feet, or so, of Vasco Road. Ron claims that the short extension, with necessary improvements of Armstrong Road, could be completed in five years or less.

There are a number of reasons why the Airport Connector is a great idea. For one thing, the Airport Enterprise Fund currently spends $500,000 a year maintaining Byron Airport with absolutely no return on the investment. It would only make sense to establish the airport as a self-sustaining and self-reliant entity, which should be easily accomplished by simply providing improved access.

Furthermore, converting the airport to a commercially viable transportation hub would boost the region’s commercial and industrial investment, inevitably resulting in the creation of more local employment opportunities. “Commuters are living difficult lives and the commute is getting worse,” Ron said. “We could create quality jobs by promoting economic expansion through improved airport access.” Then he added, “Everyone in the region would be affected.”

Ron and his committee have a lot of work cut out for them. They have to satisfy requirements imposed by The California State Transportation Authority. Any construction designs involving airport property and surroundings must be according to the General Plan’s standards regarding such things as population densities to avoid overburdening available utilities and building heights to preserve air traffic safety. Ron explained the complexity of the issues by describing an appeal from the Central Costa County Sanitary District to gain approval for farming beyond the ends of Buchanan Airport’s runways. “We had to question whether putting the land under agriculture would attract flocks of birds that would endanger aircraft,” he said.

Ron Reagan is convinced that the Byron Airport extension project will overcome all the challenges. The Aviation Advisory Committee has formally appealed to The Contra Costa County Transportation Authority, which has charge of the Highway 239 project, requesting their support in securing the necessary funding to complete the segment next year rather than waiting until 2035 when the whole 239 project is scheduled for completion.

Maybe it will happen. County Supervisor Mary Piepho and U.S. Senator Steve Glazer have indicated their support of the project. State Assemblyperson Jim Frazier, a strong supporter of the project, just took over the reins as head of the State Transportation Authority. That has to be a good sign…

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