MERCED — A Merced County construction project that aims to improve highway safety by replacing a dangerous interchange will break ground this week — a day more than 10 years in the making.
A groundbreaking ceremony will be held Friday to kick off phase one of the Atwater-Merced Expressway Project, which will replace the Highway 99 and Buhach Road interchange. The four-phase project ultimately will connect from Bellevue Road over Highway 99 to Highway 140.
The expressway then would run to Highway 59 and UC Merced, officials said, and widen a section of Highway 99 to six lanes.
Lori Flanders, Merced County Association of Governments spokeswoman, said the cost of the first phase of the project is $55 million, with $7 million coming from local MCAG funds. The remaining $48 million was funded by leftover bond money from voter- approved Proposition 1B.
Flanders said the Buhach Road interchange forces drivers to enter the freeway southbound at high speeds as they merge into the fast lane on that two-lane stretch, which creates a safety hazard.
"The safety part of it is the biggest deal, especially for folks that travel in that area," she said.
Merced County District 3 Supervisor Linn Davis said the project hit a few roadblocks along the way, with some officials fearing it might never happen.
"When I first came on board, I was told that it would never happen in my lifetime," said Davis, who uses the interchange every morning for work. "There were quite a few challenges, but we kept pushing forward."
Davis said the project will improve transportation to and from Castle Commerce Center, which could boost the local economy.
He said he's spoken to several companies who have decided against moving to Castle because of the interchange. "When you increase the traffic, it's definitely a factor," Davis said. "It's time to eliminate that hurdle."
Atwater Mayor Joan Faul said the city will benefit greatly from having a safer route into the city.
"That's the key thing — the safety piece of this. We get a new overpass and don't have a lane merging into fast traffic," Faul said. "It's taken 11 years, and we've all worked together very hard. It's a fantastic thing."
The groundbreaking for the Atwater-Merced Expressway Project will begin at 9:30 a.m. Friday near the Atwater Veterinary Clinic on Ashby Road, Flanders said. Local politicians and Caltrans officials are expected to speak during the ceremony.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.