Highway 99 repairs could lose funding as Caltrans shifts money to rail, mass transit

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is directing some money collected through gasoline taxes away from road repairs in favor of rail projects, according to a 200-page proposal from the state’s transportation department.

Under an executive order Newsom signed last month, Caltrans must “reduce congestion through innovative strategies designed to encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation.”

The plan Caltrans released last week includes money generated through Senate Bill 1 — a 2017 state law allowing California to raise gas taxes for 10 years in order to fund transportation projects.

The proposal calls for $61.3 million to be “held in reserve for priority rail projects” and other priorities outlined in Newsom’s executive order.

Meanwhile, Caltrans wants to halt a pair of highway projects in the Central Valley and another project in San Luis Obispo County, though the three projects could secure funding at a later time.

Highway 99, which passes through Fresno, stands to lose out on $17 million to widen lanes in Madera and Tulare counties. The state will also refuse to provide $15.5 million to widen Highway 46 in San Luis Obispo County.

Matt Rocco, a spokesman for Caltrans, said the department is “committed to the Central Valley,” adding that it “has always looked at multi-modal opportunities in improving transportation, which includes miles of highway widening and rail.”

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions

He noted that the department’s proposal was discussed before Newsom’s executive order and that the bulk of the money included in it still goes toward road repairs in other parts of the state. He also said Caltrans has been working to increase its focus on rail projects for several years and that the executive order fits into that goal.

“Caltrans is very supportive of this executive order, but the executive order does not divert any money from these projects,” Rocco said.

Despite the department’s assurance, Republican lawmakers from the Central Valley and Southern California are tying the decision to delay the three highway projects to Newsom’s executive order.

The executive order cited Caltrans’ “annual portfolio of $5 billion” for construction projects as money the state could leverage to “reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Republicans say Newsom is shifting resources away from the road repairs voters expected when they rejected Proposition 6 last year — a ballot measure that would have repealed the 2017 gas taxes.

Carl DeMaio, a candidate running to replace to Congressman Duncan Hunter in San Diego, led the effort in support of Proposition 6. He called Newsom a “bald-faced liar” and said the governor will likely use gas tax revenue to fund “pet projects.”

‘What it’s like to fix Highway 99’

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno was equally upset.

“The executive order basically says your own personal automobile is the problem and we’re going to force you out of your automobile by spending your gas tax money on things that don’t improve roads, highways, and streets,” Patterson said.

“What the hell were you thinking?” he said of Newsom’s directive. “I don’t normally talk like this, but it’s hard for people who are out of touch in Sacramento to fully understand what it’s like to try to fix Highway 99. The governor doesn’t use 99 like the rest of us do. He has escorts driving him. He’s out of touch with what the people have to deal with in California, and I think it’s going to bite him politically.”

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, called on the California Transportation Commission to reject its staff’s proposal. In a letter sent to chairwoman Fran Inman on Tuesday, Cunningham argued that widening Highway 46 “has the opportunity to save real lives.”

The commission held a meeting in Modesto on Tuesday to consider the plan and is scheduled to hold another one in Santa Ana next week. Public comments will be accepted through Nov. 15, and the commission will receive the final proposal a month later.

Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment and late Tuesday said Rocco of Caltrans spoke on behalf of the administration. Caltrans could not immediately say why the three specific projects were halted and how much money generated through gas taxes will go toward rail projects.

Sacramento Bee reporter Wes Venteicher contributed reporting.

Related stories from Fresno Bee

Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.