Property acquisition and utilities continue to delay Highway 156 expansion

If Caltrans can’t reach agreements with landowners, they’ll be settled in court.

Although construction of a new four-lane Highway 156 was slated to begin in November, Caltrans has quietly delayed the project once again. According to its project update for the Aug. 20 Council of San Benito County Governments (COG) monthly agenda, construction is expected to begin in summer 2021 and the project’s design is 95% complete.

Caltrans Project Manager Brandy Rider told BenitoLink the delay is mostly related to right-of-way acquisitions and utility agreements. BenitoLink reported in December 2019 that the project was delayed for five months following complications with right-of-way and utility relocation agreements. 

“We have settled with nearly 90% of property owners and in May/June we started the process to go through condemnation on the remaining parcels,” Rider said in an email. “We continue to negotiate with the property owners, however we cannot proceed until we have agreements in place. Should agreements not be achieved, the matter will have to be settled through the court system.”

The Highway 156 improvement project, which began in 1999, is expected to construct about five miles of a four-lane expressway from The Alameda in San Juan Bautista to Hollister. Caltrans has said that the improvements will reduce traffic congestion at peak hours and save millions of dollars in vehicle operating and accident costs.

According to the project website, it will save $34.6 million over 20 years on accident and vehicle operating costs, with a $102.8 million return on investment in the same period. It’s estimated that it will reduce congestion by 1,902 hours daily.

Rider said the project has also experienced delays in negotiating with utility companies, which are confronted with layoffs, mergers and emergencies caused by wildfires. 

“We anticipate finalizing the utility agreements in the coming month, once complete with our utility agreement we can proceed to final contract plans and advertising of the contract,” she said. “We anticipate contract award by April 2021 pending no further delays with the utilities.” 

Prior to the November timeline, construction for the $105.9 million, two-year project was set to start in July. The new highway is fully covered by local funds—including traffic impact fees—and the Statewide Transportation and Improvement Program.

When the last update was given during the December COG meeting, Aileen Loe with Caltrans said the agency was negotiating with three property owners and expected to have an agreement in February.

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.