Calling the Caltrans project “a complete disaster,” South County residents voiced opposition to yet another plan to straighten out a highly contested curve on Highway 25 about 30 miles south of Hollister. Caltrans claims the curve is dangerous, but locals say there have been no accidents that they can recall.
After a public comment session on July 14 about a new Caltrans plan to re-do a costly and badly designed realignment of the road, the debate about the ever-increasing cost of the project continues. South county residents have consistently expressed their lack of support for Caltrans’ design.
The price tag for less than 1/8-mile of road south of Pinnacles National Park has grown from its original 2015 budget of $2.1 million to an estimated $22 million for the latest. Work is slated to begin January 2023 and it is expected to be completed by January 2024.
Six residents listened in, but just three—David Cole, Shelly Krieger, and Barbara Hearne—made their views known during a virtual public comment session with Caltrans. All three objected to “pouring more taxpayer money into the project.” Each also spoke with BenitoLink.
While they were told their comments would be entered into the “Initial Study with Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration” environmental report, all said they felt they were not being listened to. They also questioned the validity of a study based on 2006-08 Highway Patrol data on accidents at the location. Caltrans has consistently used that data to justify the expense and effort to straighten out a curve in the isolated portion of the county.
In a summary of selective collision data from the Traffic Accident Surveillance and Analysis System (TASAS), Caltrans claims the rate of fatalities and injuries at the location was “significantly higher than the average of similar roadways throughout the state.” Caltrans claims the “collision rate per million vehicle miles was 12.07 times higher than the average.”
However, Officer Mike Rigby, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol in King City, told BenitoLink there was no way to determine how many traffic accidents actually occurred at any specific site along Highway 25. He did say there were a total of 23 collisions—10 of which were motorcycles—between Pinnacles National Park and Highway 198 during the study’s three year timeframe. While Caltrans claims there was one fatality during that time, Rigby said there were none.
JoAnne Falsey, whose family has ranched near the site since 1963, told BenitoLink that in all those years she was aware of only one accident on the curve, and that it involved a motorcyclist.
Caltrans presented only two choices for the project: repair the road, or leave it in its caved-in condition, forcing travelers to take the route around the hill. Cole, though, suggested a third alternative—return the hill to its original state by filling in the cut and replanting blue oaks.
Cole, who works in the Bay Area and has had a second home in the county for 10 years, questioned the need to remove more of the indigenous blue oaks.
Brandy Rider, Caltrans project manager, said oaks will be replaced until after the estimated 2024 completion date.
Cole said the first project was a waste of money. “We’re putting up with the light pollution and stop lights in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “The trees were never replanted as promised, and I feel like we just have to deal with it and there’s no recourse.”
Resident Shelly Krieger challenged Caltrans to visit the site on weekends and do a feasibility study. She said bikers race along the road often at speeds approaching 100 mph. She said the original curve probably saved lives in that it forced them to slow down.
“If you make that a straightaway you’re going to have more people die on motorcycles, I can absolutely guarantee it,” she said.
“We do have a safety issue and we have to address folks going through that area at high speeds,” Rider said. “We do know that they have an enforcement issue out there and we have to do what we can in order to build a facility that is the safest that it can be for the traveling public. We have a responsibility to reduce that collision rate in this particular area.”
According to Caltrans, the latest iteration of the curve realignment project will result in about 72,000 cubic yards of material being excavated to repair the cut slopes and provide space for the new roadway that will allow vehicles to cut through the small hill and avoid the curve. Caltrans says it will be necessary to remove 217 blue oak trees. The route of the road has been moved slightly to the north because of the presence of Native American relics.
Krieger said that by returning the road to a straight cut through the hill, motorcyclists would see it as an open invitation to go at even higher speeds through it, not realizing that there are equally dangerous curves on both sides of the hill.
“I think you are doing an injustice by not doing that [feasibility study] right now,” she said. “You don’t live out here, so I think whoever gave that information with respect to going off the road obviously they’re already going too fast, so now you’re going to give them a straight shot and how are they going to react when they get to the bottom of the hill where there’s another curve?”
Cole added that he did not think the accident report justified the entire project and agreed with Krieger that the design would only increase speeds through the area.
“I know that there was some data around that was written like a percentage of fatalities for the amount of traffic, but there’s so little traffic that I thought it almost sounded like just one or two accidents could trigger this threshold,” Cole said. “I still don’t believe this project is justified. I do believe the very best alternative is to put this back the way it was. It would give us a better road and it would help control traffic.”
He continued, “I don’t have any confidence in this project. It was a complete disaster and we have to live with it. It’s to be 10 years before it’s fixed and I don’t see anybody having any accidents.”
Barbara Hearne, who has lived in San Benito County since 1989, also wondered about the traffic study.
“On the weekends Highway 25 basically becomes a mini Laguna Seca.” Hearne said the whole time she and others have been on the phone talking with Caltrans “they were just placating us.”
In March 2018, about 25 South County residents gathered for a community input meeting hosted by former District 4 Supervisor Jim Gillio with Caltrans representatives at the Inn at Tres Pinos. They were told the proposed repairs had already increased from $9.5 million to $11.3 million.
At the time, Rider and Caltrans engineer Steve McDonald admitted the Caltrans’ 2015 design for the cut through the hill was at fault and ultimately caused the collapse three months later, forcing Caltrans to reroute traffic back onto the original road around the hill.
“This project is very frustrating for District 4 residents who live in the area, as well as all San Benito County residents,” Gillio told BenitoLink June 29. “I encourage everyone with concerns on the new design to contact the environmental planner at Caltrans. It is critical that Caltrans continues to hear from us regarding this incredibly frustrating and expensive redesign and repair.”
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