Making Highway 99 an interstate divides Californians, lawmakers

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley counties differ sharply over renewed congressional efforts to promote Highway 99 into a federal interstate.

Fresno and Tulare counties support a new bid by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, to waive certain interstate requirements. The waivers would make it easier for the heavily trafficked highway to win interstate designation and secure federal funding.

But Merced and Stanislaus counties, among others, resist the move to interstate status. The conflict leaves the highway's future status in doubt and complicates relations within California's congressional delegation.

"People want to have safe freeways, and they complain that Highway 99 isn't good enough," Nunes said Monday, "and then the local elected officials say they don't want this."

Nunes and Costa are now drafting the Highway 99 legislation that they hope will be included in a big transportation bill planned by Congress this year. The current transportation bill, dubbed SAFETEA-LU, authorized converting Highway 99 into an interstate but only after standards were met and the state had applied.

The current bill expires Sept. 30, giving lawmakers a fresh opportunity to rewrite plans for the 46,000-mile interstate highway system, as well as mass transit and more.

The draft Highway 99 provision would waive some of the usual interstate standards covering bridge heights, paved shoulders, lanes and the like. Instead of immediately updating the highway to interstate grade, California could put off meeting federal requirements until it was time for regularly planned maintenance.

Skeptics stress the estimated $920 million cost for bringing Highway 99 up to interstate standards. Even with waivers allowing the work to be postponed, the cost eventually must be borne.

"Where would that money come from?" Candice Steelman, public information officer for the Merced County Association of Governments, asked Monday. "Certainly not from the state of California, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy."

In time, eventual interstate designation could make the current Highway 99 eligible for federal interstate dollars currently flowing to California.

But if more federal funds are steered toward the current Highway 99, fewer funds would be available for the other 2,455 miles of interstate within California. Politically, that's likely to diminish enthusiasm for the Highway 99 notion in other parts of the state. Steelman, moreover, added that "there's no guarantee it will receive federal funding" even if the highway gets interstate status.

Differences of opinion likewise prevail through the region served by Highway 99, which is also called State Route 99. Some other lawmakers, including Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, say they support measures to ease interstate conversion. Others question the costs and benefits.

"Redesignation of State Route 99 to interstate status is not warranted," the Merced County Association of Governments declared in a written statement.

Last week, Stanislaus Council of Governments leaders likewise concluded that "there is not a benefit" to interstate conversion, in the words of Stanislaus County Supervisor Jeff Grover.

"There is no technical benefit to the SR 99 interstate designation," Patricia Taylor, executive director of the Madera County Transportation Commission, advised Nunes in a June 11 letter, adding that "there is no guarantee" that waivers will be accepted.

The congressman who represents Merced and Stanislaus counties, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, was non-committal Monday beyond noting the local opposition.

In writing, transportation policy leaders in Fresno and Tulare counties have advised Nunes' office that they continue to support moves toward interstate status.