Bee Investigator: Why the expensive Highway 99 work between Merced and Chowchilla?

05/04/2014 6:40 PM

05/04/2014 11:07 PM

We’re back on the fast track this week, heading out to Highway 99 to answer questions from Alan Seliger of Modesto. He asked: “What is all the money being spent on construction on Highway 99 between Merced and Chowchilla? There is a new section of northbound 99, there are bridges built over creeks and it looks like there is a lot of money being spent on the project. The area is strictly agricultural, and I wonder why millions of dollars are being spent on this project.”

My husband has asked the same questions as we passed by the new construction to the east of the freeway when cars are already driving on what seems to be reasonably good pavement. If the California Department of Transportation wanted to widen the highway, why not simply do it instead of creating whole new sections and bridges?

I contacted Caltrans (they love hearing from me!) and here was the lengthy response:

“The project your reader is referring to is the State Route 99 Plainsburg Road Freeway Project,” said Angela DaPrato, public information officer for Caltrans’ District 10. She said Caltrans is building a new interchange on Highway 99 at Plainsburg Road and adding two more lanes, so that there will be six lanes instead of four on a 5-mile section from Buchanan Hollow Road in Merced County south to the Madera County line. She said the project eliminates the last “at-grade intersection” in Merced County, “providing motorists with a faster and safer commute.”

The project began Dec. 11, 2012, and is slated to be completed in summer 2015.

While she didn’t address Alan’s concern about eating up agricultural land, DaPrato said Highway 99 “is a major route in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. The improvements are critical to the economic vitality of the Central Valley and will help ensure goods and traffic move smoothly. The $76.6 million project is a partnership between Caltrans, Merced County and the Merced County Association of Governments. The project received $65.9 million from Proposition 1B, a 2006 voter-approved transportation bond.”

She noted there is an adjoining Caltrans project, as well. Begun on June 27, 2012, that project will add a new interchange at Arboleda Drive and also will add two more lanes to the highway from Buchanan Hollow Road in the south to the Miles Creek Overflow, which is north of McHenry Road. That project has a price tag of $128.1 million, with $91.7 million coming from the Proposition 1B bond. That one, too, will be completed next summer.

“When the projects are completed, Central Valley motorists will be able to travel the entire 12-mile stretch between Merced and Chowchilla on a new six-lane freeway,” DaPrato said.

“Once completed, the projects will bring Caltrans one step closer to achieving the department’s endeavors to widen the freeway to six lanes from Marysville to Bakersfield. The goal is to strengthen community identity, unify freeway improvements, tie communities throughout the corridor together and foster a valleywide identity. The projects were designed to ease congestion, improve mobility, decrease travel times for all motorists, reduce maintenance costs and enhance safety for both commuters and recreational traffic.”

I’m not sure how adding an extra lane in each direction will “tie communities” together and “foster a valleywide identity,” but it should definitely ease congestion. Don’t you hate it when you have to merge down into two lanes and get held up by folks who seem to be driving to the Young Rascals’ tune “Groovin’ ”? Or end up behind tractor-trailers chugging along to pass one another?

Finally, there’s one more similar project: This one would add one freeway lane in each direction of Highway 99 from the Stanislaus-Merced county line to just south of the Hammatt Avenue overpass near Livingston. It’s still in the approval stages; a contract is scheduled to be awarded in July 2015, with work completed the following year. Because it will add the lanes in the middle of the existing highway, it won’t gobble up additional agricultural land.

Want to find out more? Read the Caltrans fact sheets about the projects at www.dot.ca.gov/dist10/d10projects/mercedco.html.

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