By Corinne Reilly

 The first stretch of Campus Parkway, the long-awaited expressway that will eventually connect Highway 99 to UC Merced, could be open to traffic by the end of this year.

In the works for more than a decade, the four-lane, $110 million expressway has been billed as vital to UC Merced’s success.

It also will play an important role in preventing congestion on Merced’s roads as the five-year-old campus continues to grow, county planners have said. Today UC Merced serves roughly 3,400 students, but that’s projected to jump to 25,000 over the next three decades.

Crews have been working for several months on the roadway’s first phase, which stretches from the Mission Avenue interchange at Highway 99 to Childs Avenue. They began paving work last week, said Steve Rough, a supervising engineer with Merced County’s public works department.

Depending on the weather, that first phase could be open to traffic by the end of this year, Rough said. If this winter is a wet one, he added, construction could last into early spring.

Sacramento-based Teichert Construction is doing the work.

“We’re definitely moving along,” Rough said. “We’re just not sure what the weather will bring.”

The rest of the four-mile-long expressway will be built in two more phases — one stretching from Childs Avenue to Highway 140 and the other from 140 to Yosemite Avenue.

A timeline for those phases depends on funding.

So far the county has gathered enough state money to pay only for a small part of the second phase. Officials hope a combination of state and federal tax dollars will cover the rest.

The expressway eventually will be extended from Yosemite Avenue all the way out to UC Merced.

Plans for that final stretch won’t take shape until developers begin building the massive new community that university officials have envisioned will surround the campus.

To build the entire expressway, the county must acquire about 160 acres of land from 15 owners. Those landowners were first notified in 1998 that they’d probably have to make way for the new road.

The county successfully negotiated land sales for all the property it needed for the first phase.

Rough said the county is now working to acquire the land for phases two and three, and that most owners have agreed to sell.

The county is slated to begin eminent domain proceedings next month against two landowners who so far have declined to sell their property to the county, according to written reports.

Campus Parkway earned its final go-ahead to break ground from the Federal Highway Administration in May 2007.

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