WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley counties differ sharply over renewed congressional efforts to promote Highway 99 to a federal interstate.
Fresno and Tulare counties support a new bid by Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, to waive certain interstate requirements. The waivers would make it easier for the highway to win interstate designation and federal funding.
But Merced and Stanislaus counties, among others, resist the move to interstate status. This leaves the highway's future status in doubt.
"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 drafting legislation that they hope will be included in a transportation bill planned by Congress this year. The current bill authorized converting Highway 99 into an interstate only after standards were met and the state applied.
The bill expires Sept. 30, giving lawmakers a fresh opportunity to rewrite plans for the 46,000-mile interstate system.
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 to interstate grade, California could put off meeting federal requirements until it was time for regular 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?" asked Candice Steelman, of the Merced County Association of Governments. "Certainly not from the state of California, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy."
Moreover, she said, "there's no guarantee it will receive federal funding" even if the highway gets interstate status.
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said he supports measures to ease interstate conversion. Others question the benefits.
Last week, Stanislaus County Council of Governments leaders concluded there is no benefit to interstate conversion.
"There is no technical benefit to the (State Route) 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.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, was noncommittal Monday beyond noting the local opposition.
Fresno and Tulare counties have said they support moves toward interstate status.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-383-0006.