The widening of Highway 156 between San Juan Bautista and Hollister is closer to reality after the San Benito County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 6 approved an agreement with Caltrans to turn the two-lane road into a four-lane expressway.
The board adopted Resolution 2015-77 to approve the new Controlled Highway Agreement (CAHA) for the Hwy. 156 widening project. The supervisors were also briefed by the Council of Governments about the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) Amendment to include the Highway 25 widening project on the constrained list of projects.
The agreement with the State of California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), replaces the 1958 Freeway Agreement between the county and state. The new agreement outlines Caltrans’ plan that proposes to widen State Route 156 to a four-lane expressway between San Juan Bautista, 0.3 miles east of Cagney Road and half a mile east of Mitchell Road. The four-lane expressway will run parallel to and on the south side of the existing SR 156, which will then be designated as a frontage road belonging to San Benito County. Two county roads, Lucy Brown Lane and Flint Road, which currently intersect with SR 156, will not be extended beyond the new frontage road to intersect with the realigned highway and will be closed beyond the intersection with the new frontage road.
Because county roads will be affected by the project, Caltrans was required to adopt the agreement with San Benito County and the supervisors held a hearing to take public comments. There were no comments offered and the resolution was adopted.
Highway 25 Widening Project
Mary Gilbert, executive director of COG, presented an update on the Highway 25 widening plan and the San Benito County Regional Transportation Plan Amendment.
“The Highway 25 widening project is a priority in San Benito County, and that’s been acknowledged at all levels of government,” Gilbert said. “All of those and the cities of Hollister and San Juan Bautista have adopted resolutions setting it as a priority project.”
She said Highway 25 has been included in various plans for the past 20 years. As part of a show of commitment over the years, COG has allocated $10.6 million of state highway funding to improve safety on the highway connecting San Benito and Santa Clara counties. A 2010 Caltrans environmental document established project costs, broken up into two phases. Phase 1 was for $67 million and would cover the highway between San Felipe Road and Hudner Lane. Phase 2 was for $181 million to complete the project from Hudner Lane to the Santa Clara County line.
“That document has been in development for a number of years and we’re finalizing it right now,” Gilbert said. “We looked at that project cost and it far exceeds highway funding that San Benito County anticipates to receive. So, how would we fund such a project with that big of a cost?”
In 2011, a traffic impact mitigation fee program that would be charged to new residential, retail and commercial developments was adopted. The fee project has 15 funded projects in it, and in 2011, when it was adopted, the $67 million portion of the Highway 25 widening project was not included in that list of projects. Instead, it was replaced with a $4.7 million operations project, which was used for passing lanes and reduced the amount of funding that could go to the widening project.
“Our 2035 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) was adopted in June 2014,” Gilbert said. “It includes financial assumptions, also adopted by COG, and they help us to develop projects that will be included in the plan. The COG board directed that we would only be looking at the core federal, state and local funds for all the projects, whether they be highways, local streets, bicycle and pedestrian projects. There was clear action taken to where we’re going to be looking in the 2035 RTP at expanded fundings, such as sales tax and an increase in impact fees. That limited what we could do because our project list has to be financially constrained.”
Gilbert reiterated that Highway 25 is included in the regional plan, in the financially unconstrained (not fully-funded) list. It’s in the regional plan, but it has not gone anywhere and is still designated a priority for San Benito County. Statewide, however, funding resources are limited. The regional plan has 22 federal, state and local sources, of which, only three meet eligibility requirements that San Benito County could use.
“Working with those three sources, we couldn’t say that we have even $67 million for that first phase,” she said. “Highway 25 is still a priority project, but we can’t say that we have funding resources to pay for phase one.”
Even though the widening project remains on the unconstrained list, she said it can still move forward, as far as additional planning or to find more funding is concerned.
Supervisor Anthony Botelho, whose district includes San Juan Bautista, asked, “We’re moving forward with a transportation sales tax. Would a portion of that qualify as a funding source to move the project from the unconstrained list to the constrained list?”
Gilbert said it would.
“I just wanted to make it clear about the importance of that (proposed) COG sales tax,” Botelho continued. “I know this board is very much behind it, but Hollister needs to understand how this is going to work.”
“On that point,” Gilbert said, “we are looking at those increasing funding resources in our RTP and increase the number of projects that can be on the constrained list.”
One of those projects is a traffic impact mitigation fee program update and COG is reevaluating the widening project and associated costs, which would be included in new development impact fees. Gilbert said there is support in the county for a transportation sales tax that could also go toward the widening project, as well as other projects.
“In August 2015, the COG board approved these new financial assumptions for inclusion in the RTP as part of an amendment,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gilbert said optional, smaller phases to replace the two large phases are being contemplated. To that end, COG is funding an independent engineering alternative analysis to take a fresh look at the scope of the project and perhaps downsizing.
“There may be some mid-term improvements that still meet our need for congestion mitigation and getting people out to the Bay Area quickly,” she said.
COG is also committed to public involvement in the process, Gilbert noted.
“In addition to our monthly board meetings, we also have a stakeholder group that’s been meeting to discuss all transportation needs for the county,” she said.
Moving forward, Gilbert said the mitigation fee study will go before the COG board in November as work continues on Highway 25 scoping and developing the new expenditure plan for a sales tax, from December 2015 through April 2016, to determine what portion of the tax would go to the widening project. There will also be an environmental impact report associated with the regional transportation plan.
“There will be some opportunities for public hearings, as required by statute,” Gilbert said. “This process that we’re following is very critical because we do want to make sure that we have state and federal approval of the RTP amendment, which we hope will be adopted the summer of 2016.”
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer reemphasized Gilbert’s contention that the process COG is going through is critical to gaining federal and state approval.
“We’re amending the RTP and we’ll have buy-off from Caltrans,” he said. “They are giving us the nod that we are going through the steps correctly and they’ll be able to buy-off on this once the process is done. People ask why we can’t just put it back on (constrained list), but there is a process that has to be taken and the COG board is doing what it needs to do to keep Highway 25 going forward. They’re committed to this process.”
Supervisor Margie Barrios admitted that in hindsight it was a mistake to take the Highway 25 project off the constrained list.
“I didn’t realize that we should never have taken it off and if you do you create a whole new set of problems,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. At the time, we were going through the recession and we thought it was the best thing to do. In retrospect, we should have done it differently. Now we’ve got the challenge of getting it back on and making sure that we’re at the top of the list for funding.”
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