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Caltrans is in the initial stages of planning a wildlife crossing overpass on Highway 101 near San Juan Bautista.
Morgan Robertson, senior environmental scientist for Caltrans District 5, said this area was identified in the top 12 locations in the state to maintain a healthy wildlife population. She also said it is a hotspot for animal-vehicle collisions and a wildlife movement barrier priority, according to studies from UC Davis and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, respectively.
According to her presentation to the San Benito County Board of Supervisors Sept. 26, three mountain lions have been reported as being killed by vehicles on this area of Highway 101 in the last five years. She added there are “high rates of roadkill” that involve deers, coyotes and bobcats in the Aromas Hills.
She said the portion of Highway 101 identified near the eucalyptus grove is a high volume traffic area that lacks culverts or bridges that allow wildlife crossings from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Gabilan mountain ranges through Rocks Ranch, which was recently partially bought by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County for the protection of wildlife, habitat preservation, restoration and management, wildlife-oriented education and research, and habitat connectivity.
According to a 2017 Caltrans traffic volume report, three are 2,800 vehicles on peak hours on that portion of Highway 101.
Robertson said trail cameras installed in the area show wildlife are not using existing culverts because they are not conducive for crossing.
“The highway is creating insurmountable obstacles to wildlife movement,” Robertson said.
She added providing connecting habitats is essential to maintain genetic diversity by avoiding in-breeding as animals with crossed eyes and kinked tails are now being sighted.
She said on average vegetated overcrossings in California cost “$50 plus million” and that funding is available for these projects through grants from various state agencies as well as nonprofit organizations that raise money.
Robertson said no funding has been secured but if Caltrans were to secure funding the earliest this project could be completed is in 2030.
The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County also led the The Laurel Curve Wildlife Crossing on Highway 17 which was budgeted at $12 million, according to its website. The under crossing project was completed in 2022 and took 10 years.
Supervisor Zanger said while he understands funding is earmarked for specific projects, he hopes there is community outreach to inform residents of why this project was constructed ahead of fixing roads such as Highway 25.
“I know it’s going to be very frustrating to see something like this for a lot of residents and then be stuck in traffic forever,” Zanger said.
Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki said he supports the concept but was concerned about the cost. He added the state’s priorities “are out of balance” when it comes to funding projects that could save human lives.
“A lot of people have died over the years on Highway 25 and more people are very likely going to die and get seriously injured in the coming years,” Kosmicki said. He added if he were given the choice and it was local tax dollars, he would pick to “get the highway expanded as quickly as possible.”
He also requested that Caltrans provide specific data on the numbers and species of wildlife that use such crossings and the benefit to the environment so that supervisors can relay that information to their constituents.
A part of Rocks Ranch along Highway 101 near the San Juan Road exit is part of four properties designated in the county’s general plan, which serves as the blueprint from growth, as commercial nodes along highway 101. The other three properties are known as Livestock 101, SR129/Searle Rd and Betabel Road. The properties have been the focus of referendums and lawsuits (Betabel and SR129/Searle Rd) as part of efforts from local activists to block rezoning from rural/agriculture/rangeland to commercial. When rezoning was first approved in 2019, only Livestock 101 had an existing commercial zone designation.
Those efforts, since 2019, have not been successful as the Betabel Road project is under construction.
The Betabel project is separated into three phases. The first includes a farm stand, mercantile and outdoor restrooms.The farm stand was completed in 2022. The next two phases will consist of a gas station, visitors center, restaurant and hotel. McDowell told BenitoLink that the project would create several million dollars in tax revenue for San Benito County.
The SR129/Searle Rd project known as Travelers’ Station submitted to the county, proposes a gas station, a convenience store, a fast food restaurant and an office building, according to the project application.
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