Highway 99 funds are vital to Tulare County

Tulare is first city to take a stand on state’s recommendation to defund Highway 99 widening through the city

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

TULARE – Tulare became the first city to send a letter to the Governor requesting that he reinstate funding for the Highway 99 widening project he is proposing to delete.

At its Oct. 22 meeting, Mayor Jose Sigala asked fellow councilmembers to join him in approving a letter requesting that Gov. Gavin Newsom direct CalTrans and the California Transportation Commission (CTC) to restore $6 million in design funds and $2 million in environmental planning funds to widen Highway 99 from four to six lanes from Prosperity Avenue south to Avenue 200 through the City of Tulare. On Oct. 1, the state transportation agencies recommended deleting the project from the Interregional Transportation Improvement Program (ITIP) in order to comply with the Governor’s Sept. 20 executive order to shift $5 billion in transportation funds to meeting the state’s climate change goals.

“The various proposed deletions have a direct and inequitable impact on the San Joaquin Valley,” Sigala wrote in his Oct. 22 letter to the Governor.

Tulare stands to lose the most by the Governor’s executive order as Tulare County has already secured funding for the widening of Highway 99 from four to six lanes from Tagus Ranch south of Tulare to Prosperity Avenue. Without funding to in place to start the next leg of the widening project, local leaders are worried there may be a huge lag time between projects, which could hurt the local and state economy.

“Although retracting the funds for multiple projects is specifically occurring in Tulare, they will have a negative impact on the entire State’s farmland and produce product distribution, as much of that product is driven through Valley highways.”

A 2018 report by ValuePenguin, an insurance data compiler, listed State Route 99 as the most dangerous roadway in America with 62.3 fatal accidents per 100 miles despite being one of the shortest highways on the list. The highway is also one of the most significant farm to market roadways in the nation transporting more than 250 crops from the state’s top agricultural producing counties to ports in the Bay Area and Southern California, according to CalTrans. When those trucks slow down or idle at a complete stop on a highway, they contribute to both ozone and particulate pollution in area that already ranks in the top 5 of most polluted regions for air quality by the American Lung Association.

“As you know, SR-99 is vital to the State of California and the nation for goods movement,” the letter reads. “The safety and economic security of all who use the SR-99 corridor is at risk without continued funding and immediate improvements to the area.”

Sigala said widening Highway 99 through Tulare has been discussed between local agencies and CalTrans for decades, through changes in the commissions and state leadership. In his letter, Sigala said they are requesting that the CTC and CalTrans develop a plan to fully fund the Highway 99 corridor projects in the next 10 years. The letter was approved 4-1 with Councilmember Carlton Jones casting the lone dissenting vote.

“If Gov. wants to come and make the announcement to restore the funds here, we would love to host him in Tulare,” Sigala said after the meeting.

The Tulare Mayor’s letter is part of a regional reaction to the transportation funding take. Tulare County Board of Supervisors Chair Kuyler Crocker, who also chairs the county’s regional planning agency, said the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG) board authorized staff to apply for the Highway 99 funds directly instead of its normal procedures through CalTrans. By applying for the ITIP funds directly, Crocker said TCAG has been advised the project is more likely to receive a higher funding grade.

“It’s very uncommon for an agency to apply directly for funding with the CTC,” Crocker said. “We have never done that as an agency.”

Crocker said Visalia Mayor Bob Link, in his capacity as a vice chair of TCAG, had a productive meeting with CTC and the Governor’s office staff members. Crocker also said the strategy may not be needed as local legislators continue to put pressure on the Governor from both sides of the aisle.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) has been the most vocal opponent of CalTrans proposal calling the Governor’s order a bait and switch after the state raised the gas tax and sunk millions into a failed high speed railroad.

“I just think all who represent California both Democrats and Republicans have better step up and stand up and say Mr. Governor you can’t do this,” Patterson told CBS47.

On Oct. 8, State Senator Melissa Hurtado (R-Hanford), along with two other senators, sent a letter to the CTC voicing their concern that the Governor’s plan would erode taxpayer confidence in the legislature after passing Proposition 1B, a $19 billion transportation bond approved by voters in 2006 “to relieve congestion, improve the movement of goods, improve air quality, and enhance the safety and security of the transportation system.”

The deprogramming of Highway 99 projects for SR 99 in Madera County and in Tulare County for a total of $17 M are a reversal of the commitment to improve safety and capacity of this critical goods movement route through the San Joaquin Valley,” the senators wrote. “These projects were part of the promise of Proposition IB approved by the voters.”

Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) personally attended the CTC’s Oct. 9 meeting in Modesto, Calif. to speak out for the restoration of taxpayer funds the CTC approved for Highway 99 just over a year ago.

Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) also sent a letter to the CTC. In the Oct. 8 letter to CTC chair Fran Inman, Sen. Grove stated the decision to recommend the projects for deletion were made without input from San Joaquin Valley communities. She said without an explanation of how and when the funding will be replaced, the recommendation puts lives, as well as years of state and local funding, at risk.

“The Commission’s decision to abandon this project means the Commission is also abandoning the communities and residents that I represent in Senate District 16 and that is unacceptable,” Grove stated.

Grove said she will continue to monitor the situation and work closely with state and local officials to make sure the proposed defunding of Highway 99 does not become a reality.

All of the recent comments from state representatives and local officials will be entered into the record through mid-November. CTC will then make a final decision on the Highway 99 funds at its Dec. 5 meeting in Riverside, Calif.

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