Caltrans restores Hwy 99 funds

Final report on transportation funding reinstates more than $22 million to widen Hwy 99 through Tulare, all but ending a dramatic conflict between state and local stakeholders

By Reggie Ellis

TULARE COUNTY – Caltrans has reinstated more than $22 million in funding for Highway 99. 

The state transportation agency released its final 2020 Interregional Transportation Improvement Program (ITIP) on Dec. 15 issuing a complete reversal of its draft report in October that deprogrammed $32 million in highway projects including Highway 99 in Tulare and Madera counties and Highway 46 in Kern County. 

State Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) said that she is pleased funding to help mitigate the public safety risk on two dangerous roadways was restored and thanked all of the Valley legislators and citizens who made sure Sacramento heard the valley’s united voice.

“This is another strong example of our community coming together in support of a cause,” Sen. Grove said. “I thank everyone who played important roles in this effort. But the fight is not over yet. This is only a revised proposal and the final decision will take place in early 2020 which means we must continue to fight for the Central Valley.” 

Valley lawmakers, local leaders, and transportation entities strongly opposed the plan from the beginning. The opposition from the Valley was so great, it forced the California Transportation Commission (CTC) to hold a third public hearing, one more than is required, in Fresno. In addition to comments received at three hearings in Modesto, Santa Ana and Fresno, Caltrans said almost all of the comments it received on the ITIP were focused on the deprogramming of projects to widen Highway 99 from four to six lanes from Prosperity Avenue south to Avenue 200 through the city of Tulare and another Highway 99 improvement project in Madera and to improve safety along Highway 46 in Kern County.

The final report included letters from Assemblymembers Jim Patterson, Frank Bigelow and Devon Mathis, transportation organizations in Fresno, Madera, Kings, Tulare, Merced, Kern, San Luis Obispo and Stanislaus counties, and industry groups such as the California Trucking Association, American Honey Producers Association, a coalition of labor groups, Boards of Supervisors in San Luis Obispo, Merced,  cities of Tulare, Dinuba, Visalia, Farmersville, Economic Development Corporations in Madera, Tulare, Porterville, Delano, Tehachapi, Madera, Bakersfield, Chowchilla, utility districts, agricultural companies, chambers of commerce in Visalia. The CTC also received 76 emails requesting the funding be restored, of which 53 were regarding Highway 99.

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.

Caltrans had originally proposed to deprogram the Valley highway projects in order to comply with the governor’s Sept. 20 executive order to shift $5 billion in transportation funds to meet the state’s climate change goals. Gov. Newsom seemed to walk back his executive order during the California Economic Summit in downtown Fresno on Nov. 8 saying Highway 99 was a “top priority” for CalTrans and implied that any money already promised for projects would be untouched.

The restoration of highway funding was opposed by a coalition of environmental justice groups and conservation groups who favored using the money to address climate change.

The CTC will hold two hearings, one in Northern California on Jan. 30 in Sacramento and another in Southern California on Feb. 6 in Santa Ana, before making a final determination on the ITIP.

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