This article was written by BenitoLink intern Jenna Ellis
Because of the exceptionally wet 2022-23 rainy season, costs for the Hwy 156 Improvement Project have increased $13.8 million. Of that amount, the share paid by the Council of San Benito County Governments (COG), the regional transportation agency, will increase by $4.25 million.
Though COG directors voiced concerns because they were not included in the decision making process they approved the cost adjustment in a 4-1 vote. COG Director Scott Freels voted “no” on the resolution.
According to the June 15 agenda packet, COG’s original share was going to be about $25 million.
According to Caltrans, the rain storms experienced in the area between January and March left high levels of groundwater. To continue work it required the lime treatment.
“This is what caused such a drastic price increase,” Caltrans’ report states.
It also said the winter storms resulted in a new construction process which involved using more trucks and equipment to integrate the lime treatment into the project that was suggested by the project’s geotechnical design report.
COG directors, who are elected representatives of San Benito County, Hollister and San Juan Bautista, appeared upset over the project’s planning.
Freels, who represents San Juan Bautista, questioned the professionalism of the engineers hired for the project, insisting that the engineers working on behalf of Caltrans were to blame.
“Four point some odd million from a county of our size is a giant hit,” Freels said. “We’re basically taking money from the future generations to pay for a mistake we didn’t even make!”
Director Bea Gonzales, a San Benito County supervisor, voiced her concern that this decision was forced.
She said “It’s just that you have us over a barrel here, the community has been waiting for years—decades on 25—but for years on Hwy 156, and we are not in a position where we can balk on this fee. But it is highly unfair to the community that we have to eat the cost.”
Director Mia Casey, who also serves as Hollister Mayor, told BenitoLink that COG was unable to say no to this price increase because it would have caused Caltrans to halt the project entirely.
According to the agenda packet, COG will use its annual $1.4 million State Transport Improvement Program (STIP) fund allocations to fund their share over the next few years. This means it will likely affect COG’s fundings for future projects.
Casey also questioned the practicality of the construction timeline.
“I’m looking at the time frame of January to March, the wettest time of year and we’re gonna dig in the soil,” Casey said. “Why? Why would we do that at the wettest time of year? Why wouldn’t we be doing that at a dryer time of year so we didn’t run into mud and water tables? It just doesn’t make sense. Why even start digging in the middle of the wet season?”
Caltrans construction manager Patrick Simpson said that waiting for the ground to dry out could just be stopped by another rainy season.
“With all the rain this year, that did make the water table rise higher than what the geotech reported,” Simpson said. “That [water] is not something that goes away easily. The other part is again the contractor has a right to work there. If they stop working we have to pay them right of way [fees].”
He added that to allow water to percolate and dry out would delay work until the next rainy season.
“It’s just the amount of water we’ve had this year, it’s gonna take several seasons to dry out and become stable,” Simpson said.
The Hwy 156 improvement project adds five new miles of four-lane expressway along Hwy 156 between The Alameda in San Juan Bautista and Hollister, and is expected to conclude in Summer 2025.
The focus of the expansion, which originally was estimated to cost $105.9 million and was fully funded, is to relieve traffic congestion on Hwy 156 and “reduce peak hour traffic congestion and save millions in vehicle operating and accident costs,” according to the Caltrans website. The project is funded through local traffic impact fees and the statewide transportation and improvement program.
Caltrans estimates the project will save $34.6 million in accident and vehicle operating costs over 20 years; provide a $102.8 million return on investment in the same period; and reduce congestion by 1,902 hours daily and 694,257 hours annually.
Caltrans contracted with Teichert Construction, a Sacramento-based company, for the project, which has been delayed several times because of utility relocation and right-of-way acquisition agreement complications. It was first set to begin in November 2020.
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