Highway 99 construction in the San Joaquin Valley is eternal.
Or at least it feels never-ending for those of us forced to drive on California’s workhorse freeway, where semi trucks comprise more than 25% of the total traffic in some stretches.
For the last five years, I’ve been making frequent trips on Highway 99 between Fresno and Visalia. And if someone placed me under oath, I’d swear the same stretch of freeway has been under construction the entire time.
On countless occasions I’ve gotten stuck in long backups caused by lane closures and accidents. One time a careless lane-changer side swiped the car in front of me and I had to swerve out of the way. Thank goodness the middle and right lanes were clear.
Merced County residents, who’ve endured seemingly endless construction headaches on their portion of 99, can probably relate.
After doing some checking, it turns out the same stretch of 99 has not been under construction during the time I’ve been driving back and forth from Visalia. Technically, it’s two stretches.
First, Caltrans performed a rehabilitation project between Sierra Avenue in Kingsburg to Second Street in Selma. Just as soon as that was finished, work commenced on the segment between Selma and Fowler.
“Those projects abutted right up to each other,” Caltrans spokesperson Elizabeth Yelton said. “That’s where a lot of people get confused.”
Including me, apparently.
The ongoing Selma to Fowler rehabilitation project includes much-needed improvements to the six existing lanes, shoulders, medians and center divide. In addition, the northbound profile is being lowered at the Manning Avenue overpass to increase vertical clearances.
Construction was supposed to be completed this fall, according to Caltrans’ project timeline. However, Yelton said the work will continue into 2024 due to delays caused by the COVID pandemic, supply-chain shortages and wet weather.
“All that rain we had last winter set things back,” Yelton said.
Similar delays are being experienced in Merced County, where Caltrans has no fewer than four construction projects underway between Merced and the Stanislaus County line. Two are complete or nearly so, while the rest are scheduled to be finished in the first half of 2024.
One of the projects, pavement restoration through Atwater, broke ground in February 2020. Before anyone had heard of COVID-19.
Caltrans’ plan for Highway 99
Even though construction on Highway 99 might feel endless and random, there is actually a plan.
In 2005, Caltrans and transportation officials from eight counties formulated a business plan for the 274-mile segment located in the San Joaquin Valley. Among the chief goals was creating a minimum six-lane freeway in order to relieve bottlenecks that formed when the freeway narrowed to four lanes.
Between 2005 and 2020, when the business plan was last updated, 24.1 miles of freeway in Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties were widened to six lanes and 15.4 miles in Merced County, according to Caltrans. Those projects were largely funded by $1 billion from 2006’s Proposition 1B.
However, there’s much left to be done. Out of 110 total projects identified along Highway 99, 67 were unfunded as of the 2020 report. That includes 19 of the 33 Category 2 projects — defined as those that increase the freeway’s carrying capacity (including from six to eight lanes in Fresno and other metro areas).
The estimated price on those remaining 19 projects is $4.3 billion, which Caltrans doesn’t have.
Of the few remaining four-lane segments, one is in Madera County just north of Fresno. But not for too much longer.
Caltrans plans to spend $127 million (at least) widening 99 to six lanes between Avenue 7 and Avenue 12 using the existing median. Construction was scheduled to begin in July 2024, but that timeline has been pushed back approximately 12 months, according to spokesperson Larry Johnson.
Which means 99 drivers in the Fresno area will first encounter a construction zone between Clinton Avenue and downtown. Work on that $400 million project, which includes the closures of the Belmont and McKinley Avenue exits, is scheduled to begin next September with a five-year completion timeline.
Because Highway 99 construction in the San Joaquin Valley never truly ends.
It just moves around.