Driving north from Bakersfield on Highway 99, a motorist soon encounters an off-ramp onto Highway 65, which runs up the east side of the Central Valley – but not very far.
The pavement ends about 70 miles north of Bakersfield, near the farming town of Exeter.
However, 200-plus miles further to the north, another 35-mile stretch of Highway 65 connects Marysville, north of Sacramento, with Roseville through a region that has seen explosive residential, commercial and industrial growth in the last few decades.
These two widely disconnected pieces of Highway 65 hint at what was once seen as a major north-south route – a twin, so to speak, of Interstate 5, which carries traffic along the Central Valley’s west side.
It’s also an exemplar of the slowdown, and then virtual halt, in major highway construction that took hold in the 1970s as California’s population growth slowed and as liberal opposition to public works merged with conservative dislike of new taxes.
Throughout the state, projects were abandoned, sometimes with pieces of elevated highway left dangling. The paperwork of years, even decades, of complex and often heated local negotiations over routes was filed away and began gathering dust. Land that the state acquired for projects became choked with weeds, or was sold off for other purposes.
For instance, conflicts over routing a Highway 101 freeway through Eureka had just been resolved, and property had just been acquired when the de facto moratorium was imposed. Four decades later, city streets are still clogged with truck traffic.
The northern section of Highway 65 snuck in under the wire. Under intense political pressure, a young Gov. Jerry Brown authorized its expansion into an expressway to serve high-tech development. But dozens of other projects were left in limbo.
Since then, the state’s population has nearly doubled, auto and truck traffic has tripled to more than 300 billion vehicle-miles a year and the state has developed the nation’s worst traffic congestion. And even though California’s fuel taxes are among the nation’s highest, Brown – back in the governorship for a second time – is seeking more to deal with a massive backlog of neglected highway maintenance.
Not all of the abandoned projects have been forgotten.
One of the state’s longest running highway construction sagas – more than 60 years – is Interstate 710, a north-south route in Los Angeles County that ends abruptly 4.5 miles short of its planned terminus in Pasadena.
Pasadena and the other cities affected by the gap have been squabbling for decades over whether I-710 should be completed, either on the surface or via a tunnel, or left unfinished.
The current legislative session includes a bill sponsored by opponents of completion that would throw a procedural monkey wrench into current efforts to close the gap.
There’s also some interest among San Joaquin Valley officials in rekindling the Highway 65 project to relieve pressure on Highway 99, though the source of potential construction money is, to say the least, problematic.
However, Brown’s Department of Transportation has drafted a new state transportation plan that, in effect, says California should not add any more carrying capacity into its roadway system and emphasize mass transit instead.
It’s a policy that would leave highway-dependent regions such as the east side of the Central Valley still hanging.