Interstate 9 is the designation proposed for the California 99 corridor between Mettler (near Wheeler Ridge) and Stockton in California.7 Upon entering Stockton, Interstate 9 would turn west along California 4/Crosstown Freeway to meet Interstate 5, its proposed northern terminus. The California 99 freeway between Stockton and Sacramento is not being considered for inclusion in the Interstate 9 corridor, and will not be upgraded to Interstate standards.
California 99, the Golden State Freeway, follows the original U.S. 99 corridor avoided by Interstate 5 through the Central Valley region. Converted in stages from the 1940s today from a two-lane farm road into today’s four to eight-lane freeway, the final at-grade intersections along California 99 between Wheeler Ridge and Stockton were eliminated, creating a continuous freeway corridor through the Central Valley. With the removal of these at-grade intersections (completed with the interchanges between Chowchilla and Merced by 2016), the next step in the improvement of California 99 is to bring it to full Interstate-standard freeway status. To that end, politicians in the Central Valley have crafted a resolution that would request adding California 99 from Mettler to Sacramento into the Interstate Highway System.1,2
Interstate 7 is another potential designation being considered for the California 99 corridor. With the publication of the Route 99 Corridor Master Plan, the recommended designation for California 99 is more likely to be Interstate 9. However, several other sources (including Wikipedia, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other media) reported that California 99 might become Interstate 7. However, none of these cited an official source confirming California 99 will be Interstate 7. So, the Route 99 Corridor Master Plan is about as close to official as we have found that the new designation will be Interstate 9.
Converting California 99 to Interstate 9
California 99 has been considered for inclusion in the Interstate Highway System three times:7
- In the late 1950s, when the original Interstate System was designated.
- In the mid-1980s, when Interstate 5 was reconfirmed as the primary Interstate route through the Central Valley.
- In 2002, when Fresno-based Regional Jobs Initiative (RJI) petitioned to have California 99 granted Interstate status. RJI is “a grass roots group of business and economic interests with a common mission of creating 30,000 new medium paying jobs over a five year period.”7
Currently, discussions continue on elevating California 99 to Interstate status. Since there already is an Interstate 99 in Pennsylvania, the next best numbering for the route would be Interstate 9. Interstate 7 was a designation considered practical for the California 99 corridor by an article that appeared in Roads and Bridges magazine,8 but that apparently has been discarded in favor of Interstate 9. However, California 99 faces formidable obstacles to becoming an Interstate, especially the cost to bring the highway to Interstate standards.
For a route to be designated as part of the Interstate Highway System, the route must meet several basic criteria (per Assembly Bill Analysis of AJR 63):3
- The corridor must serve long distance interstate travel, connecting metropolitan areas and industrial centers that are important to defense and economic development.
- The route must secure final environmental approval and not duplicate other interstate routes.
- Routes must also directly serve major highway traffic generators and connect to the Interstate system at each end.
- The route must meet Interstate Highway standards, or a formal agreement must be reached between the state and federal government to construct the route to such standards within 12 years.
California 99, which follows historic U.S. 99, connects the major cities of the Central Valley, including Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno, Merced, Madera, Modesto, Manteca, Stockton, Lodi, and Sacramento. All of these cities, excepting Stockton and Sacramento, are avoided by Interstate 5.
Due to the age of California 99, the highway was built to Interstate standards in newer sections, but older sections retained several deficiencies requiring improvement according to Caltrans, including:3
- Lack of vertical clearance of bridge and overhead ramp structures
- Lack of shoulder width adjacent to the highway
- Insufficient median width
- Interchange, spacing and encroachment issues
A full list of the deficiencies can be found at the Caltrans Interstate 99 Designation Issues web site. Potential interchange closures to address the spacing issues are outlined here.
According to the legislative analysis, “SCR 17 (Costa), Resolution Chapter 84, Statutes of 2001, requests the Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to report by January 1, 2002 to the Legislature on ways to improve traffic congestion and transport on SR 99 between Bakersfield and Sacramento. The report was completed and included several recommendations for improvements to SR 99. The report also identified $675 million worth of rehabilitation, operation and safety improvements that were necessary for the corridor.” Not considered in this cost is the re-signing of California 99 as Interstate 9.
In early 2004, Fresno Mayor Alan Autry and Fresno County Supervisor Bob Waterston brought the idea forward to make California 99 into a toll road. The two officials planned for toll booths at either end of the route through the Central Valley (probably just north of the Grapevine and somewhere near Sacramento), and the tolls would provide funding for needed upgrades along California 99. In a Fresno Bee article, Waterston commented about tolls: “When you bring this up to people, first of all there’s a shock, and then it’s ‘Why not?’ You know, they do it in Connecticut.” 6 It is not clear whether this proposal was vetted through the Fresno County Council of Governments or with other regional planning agencies in the Central Valley. A toll road remains a possibility, but it is not at the forefront of possible solutions.