Work to widen the last remaining two-lane stretch of Highway 46 East likely won’t happen as scheduled after Gov. Gavin Newsom directed some money collected through gasoline taxes away from road repairs to rail projects instead, according to a Caltrans proposal.
Under an executive order Newsom signed last month, the state’s transportation department 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 200-page proposal calls for $61.3 million to be “held in reserve for priority rail projects” and other priorities outlined in Newsom’s executive order.
As a result, Caltrans wants to halt the project in San Luis Obispo County and a pair of highway projects in the Central Valley, though the three projects could secure funding at a later time.
In SLO County, the state will refuse to provide $15.5 million to widen Highway 46 and add a center median in the Antelope Grade area east of the Cholame “Y.”
The area is part of the highway that’s been known as “Blood Highway” for its frequent deadly head-on collisions. It’s near the location where James Dean died in a crash in 1955.
In the Valley, Highway 99 stands to lose out on $17 million to widen lanes in Madera and Tulare counties.
SLO assemblyman opposes decision
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 improving Highway 46 “has the opportunity to save real lives.”
“The widening of Highway 46 provides not only carries an economic benefit, but a safety one, as well,” Cunningham wrote in his letter. “The Highway 41/46 corridor in San Luis Obispo County, otherwise known as Blood Alley, has seen a fatality rate three times higher than the state average.”
The stretch of undivided, two-lane road at the eastern edge of the county is the last portion of Highway 46 to be widened in a string of improvements that took more than 20 years and cost more than $400 million, Cunningham said. Construction slated for 2022.
““The Antelope Grade project is the golden spike in this process — the final segment of seven to be widened,” Cunningham added. “Our region — and the state, at large — deserves assurances from the Commission that this priority project will be funded, and the Highway 41/46 corridor will be modernized and finished.”
A shift to funding rail projects
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.”
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.”
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.”
The commission held a meeting in Modesto 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. 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.