Photo by John Chadwell.
Photo by John Chadwell.

The Caltrans Hwy 25 curve alignment restoration project has been even more difficult to navigate than the meandering scenic highway in southern San Benito County. The original 2015 project was designed to straighten out a double curve around a hill that the agency considered dangerous to motorists. The poorly designed project has become a money pit.

According to the Traffic Accident Surveillance and Analysis System (TASAS), Caltrans claims the “rate of fatalities and injuries at the location was 12.07 times higher than the average.”

Local ranchers told BenitoLink they couldn’t recall any collisions there. In 2020, BenitoLink reported that Officer Mike Rigby, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol in King City, said there was no way to determine how many traffic accidents actually occurred at any specific site along Hwy 25.

He said there were a total of 23 collisions—10 of which were motorcycles—between Pinnacles National Park and Hwy 198 during the study’s three-year timeframe. While Caltrans claims there was one fatality at the site during that time, Rigby said there were none.

Located 32 miles south of Hollister, construction of the project began in 2015. Because of the steep angle of the cut—Caltrans saying it was dictated by a need to protect a small stand of blue oaks, and the California Tiger Salamander, along with an undisclosed cache of Native American relics—it unexpectedly collapsed on both sides, covering the recently completed road.

Despite the objections of local ranchers, who were concerned about the cost and said they had not seen any accidents on the curves, Caltrans kept the project on the books. Caltrans has ignored repeated urgings from those who live in the vicinity of the project to abandon it.

According to the Caltrans website, restoration began in January and is due to be completed Jan. 4, 2024. Caltrans public information Officer Heidi Crawford told BenitoLink it would be done in early spring 2024.

As of July 7, the only indication that anything had been accomplished was the absence of the blue oaks atop the hill, an orange environmental barrier, and barbed wire along the southern side of the hill.

Crawford said that to date, $500,000 had been spent on the project following the collapse. Caltrans had a budget of $2.1 million in the original project to realign that section of Hwy 25. Caltrans has yet to respond how much it spent on the original design and construction.

“Biological preconstruction survey work is in progress at this time before the dirt moving starts in about a couple weeks,” she told BenitoLink on July 7.

She did not say what had changed since the original project was engineered to protect the blue oaks. According to Jose Bautista, of Caltrans central region project development division, an initial study with “mitigated negative declaration” was prepared for the project. He said the blue oaks will be restored at a 10:1 ratio and require a three-year plant establishment period. 

“The oak trees were removed this January as early work for the project,” Crawford said. “Tree removal for the project was scheduled ahead of the nesting bird season and was overseen by a department biologist.” As for the Native American artifacts, she said, “The current work will not, and has not resulted in impacts due to the careful analysis of this area. There has been no disturbance of cultural resources.”

She also said the budget for the project is $5 million, which contradicts past estimates. The original price tag for the project was $2.1 million. In 2018, residents were told the budget to repair the damage and reopen the road was $9.5 million; it then jumped to $11.3 million. Caltrans told BenitoLink at the time that the project’s construction cost would be $5.4 million, with the rest of the funds covering environmental and design work.

The website does not include a budget but says the purpose of the project has changed from one of safety to also providing “a permanent solution to the slope failure that occurred following completion of the State Route 25 Curve Realignment project,” and to “address the replacement of the blue oak trees that were removed to complete the original project in 2015.” 

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John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...