In D.C. with a wish list, Merced County looks for help with roads, redevelopment and cops

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 8, 2013 

— Merced County officials lobbying Washington this week know, in theory, the secret of getting things done on Capitol Hill.

“The process takes a long time,” Dos Palos Mayor Johnny Mays said Wednesday. “We have to keep nudging, and nudging, and nudging.”

Exhibit A: The Los Banos Bypass.

As they have on eight previous lobbying visits organized by the Merced County Association of Governments, officials this week are urging lawmakers to support an east-west bypass around the city of Los Banos on the county’s west side. They say that with $8 million in federal funds, rights-of-way can be purchased for the initial segments of what would ultimately be a very ambitious project.

The bypass on State Route 152 has been talked about for several decades, as transportation planners dream of eventually avoiding the city’s traffic lights, residential neighborhoods and vexing congestion.

“It’s been around forever,” Mays acknowledged, adding that “we just know that we don’t have the money, and that we have to keep telling this story of how needed this project is.”

Mays serves as chair of the Merced County association, which like other San Joaquin Valley county organizations, adopts a “One Voice” theme for the annual lobbying trip. This year, 15 officials, staffers and business leaders are participating in the trip that concentrated most of the formal work on Tuesday and Wednesday

The “One Voice” idea unifies city and county officials behind a select set of projects. This year, the Merced County wish list includes $33 million for the campus parkway serving the University of California at Merced, and $7.4 million in two phases to revitalize downtown Gustine.

It also includes support for legislation, like a bill to allow the raising of New Exchequer Dam that would remove wild-and-scenic status from part of the Merced River, as well as policy changes like making it easier for smaller cities to obtain Justice Department community policing grants.

“These are done in bits and pieces, between local, state and federal funding,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Wednesday, speaking of many of the larger projects. “It’s not going to happen as a result of any one single source of funding.”

Among the most pressing questions, Costa added, is whether Congress can figure out a funding scheme to allow passage of a big transportation bill.

For part of both days, the Merced-area officials set up shop in a spare House office space for briefings and visits. At other times, they ventured off Capitol Hill, meeting at the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday and at the Department of Transportation on Wednesday. Some of what they want does not involve Congress.

At the Transportation Department, for instance, officials pressed for information on the so-called TIGER grant program, which will provide $473 million nationwide this year. With Justice Department officials, the Merced request was to set aside a certain percentage of Community Oriented Policing Services Grants for cities with fewer than 50,000 residents.

“We’d like to compete for that money,” said Livingston City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez. “We’d like to have a level playing field.”

Some of the Merced officials have their transportation and Holiday Inn room costs paid for by their respective city or county agency, while some members of the delegation paid their own way, Mays said. The Merced County Association of Governments paid the lobbying firm, Townsend Public Affairs, $9,000 for the first quarter of the year, lobbying records show.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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