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Work on extra transition lane could start as early as 2019
BYPASS 120 TRAFFIC1 1-27-17
Ground could break on upgrades to the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange to address congestion and accident on the eastbound as early as 2019. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Manteca — working in concert with surrounding communities as it has done three times before — has help set in motion a critical upgrade for Highway 120.

Mayor Steve DeBrum’s mention of the latest 120 Bypass endeavor was tucked into his State of the City address last week.

Critical upgrades to the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 and nearby Austin Road interchange that three years ago weren’t even on Caltrans’ radar until the 2030s. Then after a concerted regional effort led by the San Joaquin County Council of Governments working with Caltrans District 10 targeted date to break ground on a permanent solution was upped to 2021.

Now — thanks to SJCOG, a responsive Caltrans staff, regional pressure and the ability to harness Measure K half cent sales tax and possibly savings from Proposition 1B funding for Highway 99 upgrades — work could start by early 2019 on an additional southbound ramp lane from eastbound 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99.

While the two key agencies are working toward the 2019 date, nothing is in concrete. DeBrum noted critical design work as well as community workshops will get under later this year. The mayor has vowed to do what he can to keep regional pressure on to get a workable solution in place.

This marks the fourth time that Manteca has taken the initiative to push the state to make upgrades to Highway 120 from Interstate 5 to where it connects with Highway 99 due to either congestion or safety concerns.

The 120 Bypass that runs from Interstate 5 to Highway 99 was a major struggle to get put in place.

The late Adriana Gianturcco — the ironfisted transportation director of the first Jerry Brown administration — was against it. She viewed all new freeway projects and freeway widening endeavors as growth inducing. Ginaturcco, with roots  were in urban Massachusetts, was adamant: Mass transit needed to be the one and only priory for new construction funding.

The California Transportation Commission that must approve all highway projects in the state was equally adamant that it wouldn’t be built.

But persistent grassroots pressure including blanket distribution of information to travelers caught in hellacious Manteca traffic jams on Fridays and Sundays that stretched for miles and an aggressive effort to enlist the support of media outlets in the influential Bay Area set the stage for the project that changed Manteca for ever —the building of the Highway 120 Bypass.

Jack Snyder — the Manteca councilman who had taken the point in the community effort to end the five mile plus long traffic jams that paralyzed Manteca from Bay Area residents going to and from the Sierra — was invited by then Assemblyman Carmen Perino to a fundraiser for then Gov. Jerry Brown in Stockton. It came after months of blitzing the Bay Area media and a small army of volunteers passing out leaflets to frustrated motorists stuck in downtown Manteca traffic that urged them to contact their legislators to support the bypass project.

Perino instructed Snyder to make sure he was there and to be the last one in line to go up and shake the governor’s hands.

When the moment arrived, Brown ignored Snyder and engaged in a conversation with someone else. Perino tapped Brown on the shoulder. Perino then told Brown, “governor, the guy who needs the 120 Bypass is here to talk to you.”

The full-court press was so effective that at that point Brown — who was preparing to run for president — shook Snyder’s hand and said ”you’ve got  it.”

Gianturrco’s opposition disappeared as did that of the CTC. State funding for the 120 Bypass was approved in 1976.

Not everyone was thrilled the 120 Bypass would be built. Many merchants along Yosemite Avenue — particularly restaurants and gas stations that benefitted from bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic — were adamantly against it. They believed it would kill off business in Manteca.

Ironically 39 years later the Highway a120 Bypass is the catalyst for economic development in Manteca. It is responsible for getting outside residents to spend money in Manteca from retail to hotel rooms thanks to venues such as Big League Dreams and Bass Pro Shops that have highly visible freeway locations with easy access. 

No one in the 1980s even thought of the economic potential.

The main thing driving Manteca’s push for the 120 Bypass was to make it possible for local residents to get around town.

The second bypass battle started within several years of it being built in the 1980s. It opened with interchanges at West Yosemite Avenue, Airport Way and Main Street. But to save money it was built as a three-lane roadway with each direction alternating from two lanes down to one lane and back to two lanes between Highway 99 and Interstate 5.

Manteca lobbied for K-rail — a concrete barrier — down the middle of the 120 Bypass  — after 34 people died in less than three years of the new highway being completed.

Then in the mid-1990s Manteca worked with SJCOG using Measure K receipts to loan the state money so the 120 Bypass could be converted to full four-lane freeway status plus add ramps at Union Road to convert it into an interchange a decade ahead of schedule. The current configuration of the 120 Bypass was completed in 1995.

What the 120/99 upgrades

involve & what is

prompting it

The CHP reported  240 overall accidents on the 120 Bypass in 2016 with about a hundred of those crashes involving injuries. That reflects an accident every 1.5 days that is serious enough to require a CHP response. The bulk of the accidents — and where almost every death occurs — is in the eastbound lanes in the 1.5-mile stretch starting midway between the Union Road and Main Street interchanges and the Highway 99 transition ramps.

Back in 2010 an accident requiring CHP response happened every 2.8 days on the 120 Bypass.

Over a seven year stretch the CHP said 1,261 collisions have happened on the 120 Bypass resulting in 815 injuries and 11 deaths.

To emphasize the regional importance of the 120 Bypass and the need for safety improvements DeBrum sent a letter to state officials citing a 2014 University of Pacific Eberhardt School of Business Forecasting Center report. That study notes the largest inter-regional commute for Merced County (6,435 residents) and for Stanislaus County (17,550 residents) was to the greater Bay Area. The vast majority of those commuters pass through the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange. The lion’s share of fatalities and injuries are victims with hometowns from the two counties to the south.

The ultimate project DeBrum is pushing for is an additional transition lane from the 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99.

That, however, is not as straight-forward as it may seem. The Austin Road interchange with its overpass built in 1955 poses a major roadblock.

Not only are there off and on ramps in close proximity to the 120 Bypass/99 interchange, but the Austin Road bridge makes it impossible to squeeze in another transition lane with a reasonable merging distance.

There are two alternatives being considered for the long-term improvement.

The first could cost as much as $40 million. It would widen the connector to southbound 99 to two lanes, construct braided ramps (that are physically separated from freeway lanes) at the Austin Road interchange and replace the Austin Road crossing to provide an additional southbound 99 through lane. In some instances braided ramps require constructing bridge structures to send traffic above other lanes.

The second would cost upwards of $29 million would widen the connector to two lanes, permanently close Austin Road on and off ramps and replace the Austin Road overcrossing to provide an additional southbound 99 through lane.


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email