Central Valley

Plan floated to spur Highway 99 widening

Trust and cooperation could trim what feels like eons from the far-out notion of Highway 99 growing a lane or two down the length of the San Joaquin Valley.

A consultant floated that idea Wednesday to transportation leaders in Stanislaus County, saying the freeway could expand from three to four lanes in each direction from Ripon to Modesto's Briggsmore Avenue, possibly in a few years instead of a few decades.

The magic formula requires pooling money from each of the valley's eight counties, from Lodi to Bakersfield. Together, they're much more likely to leverage state and federal dollars for huge projects, consultant Alan McCuen said.

"There are bold, audacious elements to this" Highway 99 business plan, McCuen said. Other ideas include charging a toll on some segments, higher vehicle license fees and charging for every mile drivers travel in a year.

Wednesday's presentation to the Stanislaus Council of Governments was McCuen's first to a policy board of elected officials in the valley, he said after the meeting. Previous pitches to transportation staff members have stirred lively debate, he said.

Apparently, some aren't wild about setting aside 10 percent of an important revenue source with a chance that another county's Highway 99 project gets done first.

"All (of these ideas) are on the table," McCuen said. "All are controversial. Maybe we'll be able to go someplace with them. Maybe not."

If the eight counties -- San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Mer- ced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kern and Kings -- bank 10 percent of their road money, the partners could achieve all of their respective projects in about 24 years, according to a draft finance plan. Going it alone could take several decades, McCuen said.

The stretch through Stanislaus County is estimated to cost $73 million. The county and its nine cities would reserve $2.1 million every two years, according to McCuen's proposal.

Highway 99 would be widened from four to six lanes in San Joaquin County from Harney Road to the Sacramento County line, for $180 million.

In Merced County, the freeway would grow from four to six lanes from south Turlock to Hammett Avenue, for $80 million.

Calaveras, Amador and Alpine counties have produced nice projects by pooling their money for a dozen years, said Ken Baxter of the California Department of Transportation.

Drawing money by presenting a united front "can be done," he said.

StanCOG members Wednesday gave few clues on which way they might be leaning. They're expected to debate the ideas in future meetings.

Such discussions helped local representatives know how to vote on a valleywide growth strategy last week, said County Supervisor and StanCOG member Jeff Grover.

"The more we all understand and talk about publicly and hear from staff, the better off we all are," he said.