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As high-speed rail stalls, push to widen Valley’s highways gains momentum

With California legislators engaging in another round of debate over the merits of the state’s much-maligned bullet train project, Valley lawmakers are pressing efforts to channel infrastructure investments in higher-need places.

The starting point? Highways.

Is an end to the 41 Death Trap on the horizon?

For Fresno residents traveling to the south Valley or the Central Coast, a stretch of Highway 41 at the Fresno-Kings county line has been a notorious, and deadly roadway.

The two-lane, six-mile stretch of road accounted for 35 percent of all vehicle fatalities within Fresno County on Highway 41, according to statistics compiled from a State of California crash database.

Funding to widen the highway to meet its planned four-lane capacity was batted around within the California Transportation Commission, but ultimately scuttled while deliberating over CalTrans’ 2021 Interregional Transportation Improvement Program (ITIP) package.

Friday, Asm. Jim Patterson and Fresno County officials celebrated the news that CalTrans included $19 million in its draft 2022 Interregional Transportation Improvement Program package.

The funding package, which is set to be voted on by the California Transportation Commission in December, would deliver the critical piece to fund

Efforts to secure funding also included Rep. David Valadao (R–Hanford), a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, making a transportation infrastructure request during the 2021 budget season.

If funding is secured via the ITIP process, the remaining $23 million in funds would come from a local state-authorized transportation fund $10 and Measure C.

The timing of a Highway 41 expansion within its death trap couldn’t come at a better time as Fresno County officials contemplate sending Measure C – the county’s preeminent road improvement sales tax – for another 20-year extension.

“This is the power that Measure C brings,” says Fresno County Transportation Authority chief Mike Leonardo said. “With just a little bit of Measure C money, we’re able to leverage these other funding sources.”

With approval from the California Transportation Commission, the project would begin construction in 2025.

And what about an expansion of Highway 99?

Late last week, Valley representatives in the California Legislature called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to finish modernization and widening of Highway 99 – one of the Central Valley’s two main arteries.

In a letter sent to Newsom, lawmakers called for a 15-year plan to fund and finish expanding Highway 99 across its 274-mile total length.

As it stands, eight segments of the highway, equating to 35 total miles, are incomplete, serving as a chokepoint for traffic traversing the length of the Golden State.

It, too, is also a safety hazard. Highway 99 is routinely one of, if not the, deadliest highways in the United States

Each of the unfinished segments requiring expansion sit within Merced, Madera, or Tulare counties, the letter states.

“Critics are opposed to building more highway lanes and expanding road lanes in general,” the letter, led by Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D–Sanger), reads. “Respectfully, this view is short-sighted when discussing the busiest state highway in the nation.”

Les Hubbard is a contributing reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun.