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Highway 99 construction frustrates Merced County drivers. When will it be done?

Drivers line up on southbound Highway 99 near Livingston, California amid several construction projects happening on the roadway.
Victor A. Patton
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Drivers line up on southbound Highway 99 near Livingston, California amid several construction projects happening on the roadway.

MERCED, Calif.— Anyone who uses Highway 99 to travel through Merced County undoubtedly has asked themself the same question: When will all of this construction be over?

Lanes narrowed by concrete dividers; work that causes traffic to slow to a crawl; and diversions that send drivers over bumpy pavement or onto annoying detours. It has all seemed to drag on and on.

But officials at the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, say they are making progress on multiple projects to improve the busy highway. Some of the work is about to wrap up, and other projects are scheduled to be finished in early 2024.

One of the current projects has beengoing on since 2020. Others have taken longer to complete than planned for a combination of reasons.

This past winter’s series of unprecedented storms slowed progress, along with COVID-related disruptions that made it more difficult to secure building materials, Brian Hooker, spokesperson for Caltrans District 10, told the CVJC.

Work on Merced County’s portion of Highway 99 is among several projects underway to improve safety of the key thoroughfare stretching over seven counties from Kern County to San Joaquin County. A Caltrans plan first published in 2005 and updated in 2020prioritized widening several stretches to six lanes in order to improve traffic flow and eliminate bottlenecks that formed when the highway slimmed down to four lanes.

Each day, Merced County’s stretch of Highway 99 is used by about 62,000 motorists, including 12,400 truckers, according to Caltrans.

In Merced County, here’s where things stand on the main projects as of July 27, 2023, according to Caltrans:

Merced 99 Pavement Rehabilitation project

What is it?: Resurfacing and restoration of Highway 99 through the City of Merced from roughly 0.5 miles south of Childs Avenue to 0.8 miles south of the Franklin Road Overcrossing.

Cost: $65 million project

Timeline: Broke ground in spring 2022. Originally set to be finished in early 2023; now set to be completed by spring 2024.

Keep in Mind: “It will be awhile and unfortunately, because we do have a winter coming up, there is potential (for the construction) to carry over into May 2024 for that project,” Anton Kismetian, a design manager with Caltrans, told the Atwater City Council during a July 10 presentation.

Livingston Median Widening Project

What is it?: This project will add northbound and southbound lanes to the center of Highway 99 between Hammatt Avenue and the Merced/Stanislaus County line near Turlock.

Cost: $33.9 million

Timeline: Construction began Aug. 2, 2022. Its tentative completion date is winter 2024.

Merced State Route 99 Guardrail Project

What is it?: Installs new metal beam guardrails to meet current standards, prevents cars from crashing off the roadway and improves safety between the Sultana Drive overpass and west Atwater Boulevard overpass near Atwater.

Cost: $2.65 million

Timeline: Construction started July 2023. Estimated completion date is Oct. 2023.

State Route 99 Pavement Rehabilitation Project

What is it?: This Atwater area project restored pavement from 0.4 miles south of the Buhach Overcrossing to about 0.8 miles north of the West Atwater Overhead.

Cost: $84 million

Timeline: Started in spring 2020. Estimated completion date by July 31, 2023.

Collisions up in recent years

The work on Highway 99 has not only caused inconvenience, there’sconcern it’s contributed to more crashes as construction ramped up.

Last week, Maria Guzman Aguilar, a 58-year-old mother and grandmother from Avenal, was killed when her Nissan pick-up was hit by a tire and rim that came off an oncoming big rig near Franklin Road.

Data from the California Highway Patrol shows crashes on Highway 99 in Merced County are up since 2020, when some of the construction began:

  • 2020: 566 crashes, two of which were fatal crashes (single death in each crash). 
  • 2021: 817 crashes, four of which were fatal (single death in each crash). 
  • 2022: 773 crashes, three of which were fatal (single death in each crash). 

Officer Eric Zuniga, spokesman for the CHP’s Merced-area office, said he’s seen a rise in highway collisions in recent years. The area is particularly tricky for construction because much of that section of highway is elevated with no shoulder, he said.

The construction creates headaches for the CHP as well as drivers. With little room to navigate the tight, narrow lanes, when a crash happens CHP must shut down the area and back in a tow truck.

Zuniga said CHP has asked big rigs to stay out of the fast lane in the construction zones, but not all drivers abide by the request.

Despite those headaches, Zuniga said upgrades were badly needed to repair potholes, cracks and worn-down sections of the highway. “The roadway definitely needs to get fixed. It was in pretty bad shape,” he said.

Drivers cope with delays and diversions

Merced Mayor Matt Serratto said even though it’s an issue he has no control over, he hears comments from constituents who say the associated traffic issues are a huge source of concern.

“It’s dangerous. It’s just a massive safety issue. I drive it and I get worried,” Serratto said.

Still, Serratto said he understands Caltrans and construction crews have a job to do. 

What they are doing, at the end it’s going to be better,” Serratto said. “I just hope it’s done as soon as possible.”

Local commuters are eager to see the work finished.

Andre Green, a 44-year-old manager for a health technology firm, checks traffic conditions daily before beginning his commute from Atwater to Merced and uses backroads or Santa Fe Avenue if it looks bad. The sections where lanes are narrowed and split by barriers are especially treacherous.

“If someone breaks down you are completely screwed,” Green said. “It’s not a good situation. It seems like it could have been planned a little better.”

Robert Hypes, 42, interim CEO of United Way Merced County, tries to avoid Highway 99 altogether when traveling locally.

“I’ll go down Santa Fe. I’ll cut across. I’ll take Campus Parkway,” he said. “I’ve seen too many accidents on that stretch, especially when they divide up.”

The construction, at times, closes off exits, creating headaches for friends visiting from out of town.

“They tell me all the time ‘if you are not in the right lane, you are going to miss Merced entirely,’” Hypes said.

Still, Hypes is among those who understand why the construction is needed.

“I know they are making it better,” he said. “So I just want to be an optimist.”

For a full list of current and upcoming road construction projects in Merced County, visit the Caltrans District 10website.

Victor A. Patton is the community engagement editor for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.

This story was published in partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan community newsroom. To get regular coverage from the CVJC, sign up for CVJC’s free Substack list here and follow CVJC on Facebook.