Should Highway 99 be upgraded to an interstate highway? Maybe not, local leaders in several San Joaquin Valley counties now say.
Less than three years after the Valley's busiest road was designated a candidate for interstate status, there is growing sentiment that adding lanes would be a better investment than raising bridges, removing interchanges and making other alterations that might be needed to meet interstate standards.
"I think that lane enhancement is going to do more for economic development than a sign out there that says it's an interstate," Clovis City Council Member Harry Armstrong, chairman of the Fresno County Transportation Authority, said at a recent meeting of county leaders.
At that meeting, the Council of Fresno County Governments nevertheless voted to fund its share of a proposed $115,000 study on the economic benefits of interstate conversion.
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The panel was motivated, at least partly, by questions here and elsewhere about how great those benefits might actually be, as opposed to intangible effects such as civic pride.
"The reason to move ahead with the economic study [is] simply to put that argument to rest," said the council's executive director, Barbara Goodwin. If the study bore out the conversion's benefits, then the region's decision-makers could follow up with a second $500,000 study that would flesh out its costs, Goodwin said.
Besides Fresno County, the six other San Joaquin Valley counties along Highway 99 would also be asked to help pay for the studies, as would Caltrans. But at least three of the counties are already on record opposing interstate status.
According to Caltrans' two-year-old Highway 99 Corridor Enhancement Master Plan, if an interstate conversion took place, the highway would probably be renamed Interstate 7 or Interstate 9. An Interstate 99 already exists in Pennsylvania, and the interstate numbering system generally assigns lower numbers to the western United States.
The same master plan also estimated that it would cost $6 billion to finish widening Highway 99 to six lanes from Bakersfield to Stockton and make other needed improvements. Some of that work is already under way, such as a widening and realignment in the Fairmead area north of Madera.
In contrast, the plan estimated that it would cost an additional $14 billion to $19 billion to bring Highway 99 to interstate standards, unless some of those requirements were waived. The standards address such issues as the minimum clearance under bridges, width of shoulders and distance between interchanges.
How many standards could be waived has not been determined. But a leading interstate advocate, Peter Weber, a co-chairman of Fresno's Regional Jobs Initiative, said he believes most could be.
"I don't see, as compared to other people, a lot of additional costs in going to the interstate designation," he said.
Weber, who notes that Fresno is the nation's largest city without direct interstate access, also takes issue with the idea that there is a choice to be made between interstate status and more lanes: "If we need three or four lanes, that's what we're going to do, whether we have an interstate or not."
It appears, however, that Weber and other interstate advocates have an uphill fight.
Already, the Merced County Association of Governments has voted not to pursue interstate status for Highway 99 any further.
The association won't even ante up for the economic study that the Fresno agency has voted to support, for fear of sending a message that it might yet support interstate status, said the association's executive director, Jesse Brown.
"The implication is that you would pursue it later," Brown said, "and there's just no interest in doing that."
Another opponent is the Kern Council of Governments, whose executive director, Ronald Brummett, says the agency is still willing to fund the economic study "because we think it will bear us out that it's not economically viable."
Since the master plan's completion, the state has widened several sections of Highway 99, including Selma to Kingsburg. It has also started work on the Fairmead project and secured funds for other sections, including Ashlan Avenue to Avenue 7 in Fresno and Goshen to Kingsburg in Tulare County.
Projects as yet unfunded total $1.5 billion for widening the rest of the highway to six lanes, and $900,000 to widen some segments from six to eight lanes.