Caltrans should adopt J59 into state highway system

By Union Democrat staff January 13, 2011 12:47 pm

You’ve heard of Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere? Well, California has a highway to nowhere. 

It’s State Route 59, which begins amid the orchards and alfalfa fields west of Chowchilla, heads north to Merced, then jogs east to Snelling, where it abruptly and unceremoniously, after 34 miles, ends. 



We have nothing against Snelling (Population 1,153). But the former Merced County seat, at least for most drivers, is not a destination. 


But now comes the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors with a common-sense proposal to make Route 59 a Highway to Somewhere: Simply extend it 25 miles northeast to Highway 108. 


Caltrans wouldn’t even have to lift a spoonful of earth to make this happen. All the state transportation agency would have to do is take over J59, now a local road running through Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced counties. 


“It’s out great first ask,” said County Administrator Craig Pedro, outlining a new legislative advocacy program for supervisors last week. 


Public Works Director Peter Rei applauded the board’s endorsement, saying his department has long believed that J59, or La Grange Road, should be part of the state systems. 


Newly elected Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen will be asked to introduce a bill extending the Highway 59 to the 108 intersection at Keystone. 


Skeptics, particularly those in Sacramento, may question the county’s motives. Is J59 a crumbling, potholed excuse for a road that would cost millions to bring up to state standards? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time some hapless county tried to offload a glorified goat track onto Caltrans. 


But it isn’t at all the case with La Grange Road. “It’s never going to be in better shape than it’s in today,” said Pedro, pointing out that the road last year benefited from not one, but two federally funded paving jobs. 


A $2 million earmark — it isn’t such a bad word when the cash comes to us — and $2.5 million more in stimulus funds paid for the joint Stanislaus-Tuolumne County work. And now the once cracked and pocked Sonora-Merced route is a magic carpet in comparison. 


 Tuolumne County’s annual maintenance costs, as a result, have plummeted from more than $50,000 to less than $10,000. 


Yes, its shoulders need widening, but the county has asked for a $1 million grant for the work and, says Rei, handing La Grange Road over to the state won’t affect that. 


So what does Tuolumne County have to gain from transfer? 

Maintenance costs, as they do inexorably, will rise. And if J59 becomes a state highway, the county will avoid them. It will also avoid liability for accidents on the long, two-lane road. Victims will instead sue Caltrans. 


But the most persuasive reason J59 should be a state highway is its very nature. 


It is not a county road linking county communities. Instead, as Rei points out, it is a “regional lifeline” linking Sonora and Highway 108 not only with Merced, but — via Highways 99 and 152 — to Southern California and to the Bay Area. 


Not only that, adds Rei, but Caltrans has a policy against “dead-end routes” that don’t connect with other state highways. Extending Highway 59 northeast to 108 would eliminate one prominent dead end. 


In this era of tight budgets, Caltrans probably won’t be excited about accepting any new mileage into its system. 


But logic, commons sense and J59’s superb current condition are persuasive reasons that now is the time to do it.