Merced County Times Newspaper
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Caltrans to blame for Highway 99 misery through Merced



A seemingly demure young lady found the good sense to address the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning this week.

Much of what she said is what many have been talking about for the past three years.

So many drivers have suffered through frustrating delays, nerve-racking moments, and life-threatening situations on the freeway that passes through our city.

“I’m sure you all heard about the multiple car collisions on Highway 99 that all happened within a week in September,” Jessica Lee began. “The first was on Sept. 24th, involving five cars and a fire. The next, two days later, on the 26th, involving a car under a big rig. Another four days later, on the 30th, involving nine cars.

“I understand that the lanes we have now are temporary, and they’re necessary for construction. However, with the rainy season coming up, to my understanding, construction may not be resumed until it gets warmer, or at least until the rain stops.

“Construction started in 2021, and shows no sign of being done anytime soon. I ask that you please urge Caltrans to hurry the construction, or at the very least, consider moving the cement K-rails when the rainy season starts, giving us our two-lane freeway back.

“Sept. 30 was our first rain this fall, and we had a nine-car pileup. That cannot happen when the rainy season starts. What happens when there’s another flood, and people need to evacuate, but there’s a nine-car pileup on our only freeway? What are you doing for the safety of your citizens who are paying for this construction?”

We applaud Jessica Lee for bringing this high-speed traffic nightmare to the attention of our local supervisors. But let us be clear: Caltrans is the state transportation agency that’s responsible for correcting this terrible episode for our local residents, and the tens of thousands of motorists and truckers who continuously pass through this county’s largest city.

What were they thinking?

The restoration work to repair worn-down sections of the freeway —  ironically in part to improve safety —  has narrowed traffic lanes too much, and squeezed cars and trucks dangerously close to side barriers. Drivers feel trapped.

With fast-moving traffic, there’s no room for error, especially when caution signs are ignored or missed. If there’s little room for our safe drivers, then there’s nothing left but destruction for those careless ones.

To drive these restoration roads is to take your life in your own hands. And for many drivers, three years of close calls have been too much. Highway 99 is no longer an option for the timid among us. Our senior citizens, in particular, are steering clear of it. Our frontage roads like Ashby are being impacted, as well as Santa Fe Road between Merced and Winton, and beyond.

Caltrans should have put their own engineers on this stretch of freeway, and made them spend all day driving up and down, over and over.

Recently published news reports using CHP data show that crashes on Highway 99 in Merced County soared from 556 (with two deaths) in 2020 to 817 (with four deaths) in 2021. Last year, there were 773 crashes, with three fatalities.

In July of this year, a 58-year-old woman was killed while driving in the construction zone near Merced.

To make matters worse, this year they also created what’s being called a “tunnel lane” on southbound 99 through Merced. And that’s where the recent pileups have been happening. Both big rigs and small vehicles are entering this formidable corridor, and if it’s your first time driving through it … WATCH OUT!

Meanwhile, Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto has called the Highway 99 situation “a massive safety issue” and he hopes the construction will finish “as soon as possible.”

But now we hear the “Merced 99 Pavement Rehabilitation Project” won’t be finished “until the spring of 2024.”

We believe this years-long construction on Highway 99 could have been conducted in a thoughtful manner that allows for road work efficiency alongside effective safety measures and positive outcomes for drivers.

We understand that over this same time period, Caltrans has been involved in multiple, much-needed freeway projects from Livingston to Atwater to Merced. But we can’t help but wonder if Caltrans had done fewer projects and improvements at a time, and made sure each one was fast-tracked, maybe it would have been better for the communities involved.

Lives and property could have been saved. It didn’t need to be this stressful. There was no need for an engineering disaster.

Shame on you Caltrans.

And please fix this mess before we have more delays, more accidents, more injuries, and God forbid, more lives lost on this now dangerous stretch of 99.

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