Government / Politics

Residents present concerns about county roads to COG

In the first of many meetings to come, COG directors listened to residents' ideas and complaints about county roads.

In what was described as the first in a series of public meetings, in which Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez attempted to drum up residents’ interest on Facebook, the Council of San Benito County Governments (COG) invited those who showed up Nov. 16 to voice suggestions on how to improve the county’s roadways.

Velazquez told the audience the meeting was being held in order to discuss long-term transportation strategies and other road-related issues. He shared with them that he has been among the daily commuters for 30 years. He said he often leaves at 5 a.m. or earlier and doesn’t get home until 7 or 8 p.m. He said over the last 20 years there has been a lot of talk about the roads with little being accomplished. He said there is a general lack of understanding about how to solve the problems.

“What we’re asking from you tonight is input, questions, ideas, and how you can help,” he said. “The information we’re going to give you tonight really gives you a better understanding of the issues on how we’re funded. That’s probably one of the largest issues, to understand how in the world does it cost $300 million to build a four-lane highway from San Felipe to the 101.”

Velazquez said the Highway 156 project, which has been repeatedly delayed and is now scheduled to begin in 2019, will cost $110 million. He said while the public impression is that there is no coordination between the two cities and the county when it comes to roads, in fact, they have been working together for several years, along with reaching out to Santa Clara County a year and a half ago.

After each of the five directors thanked the public for attending, giving words of encouragement, and even expressing dismay over the defeat of Measure P, and that no one should count on any significant monies coming from the recently passed gas tax, SB-1, Mary Gilbert, COG executive director, gave a brief overview of how roads are funded.

Gilbert said many residents are mainly concerned about Highway 25. She showed a chart depicting the average annual daily traffic flow on the 25. She said today the average is about 20,000 cars a day, and it’s anticipated it will increase to 35,000 a day in 23 years. She said COG has been planning for improvements a number of years. An environmental document has been approved for a four-lane highway, she said, but there is no funding for San Benito County’s share to the Santa Clara County line, at over $200 million.

She said there is no simple funding solution. What is paid in gas taxes at the pump makes its way to Sacramento, where it is funneled through various bank accounts to trickle down to various modes of transportation. She explained there is a funding crisis and lost revenues in California because as people drive more miles, more of them are doing so in fuel-efficient vehicles or electric cars, and they don’t pay any gas taxes.

In San Benito County, Gilbert explained the transportation needed to maintain the county’s road network are expected to be $1.8 billion, while projected revenues are only $1.26 billion. She said residents often ask why the state isn’t paying to repair Highways 25 and 156. She explained only 25 percent of what the state collects goes to Caltrans for its inter-regional transportation projects. Each road must meet a certain criteria to be funded, which Highway 25 does not because it’s not considered a “focus route for California.”

Furthermore, Sacramento gives back 75 percent of highway funds to the regions of California. San Benito County is considered a region, she said. Of that 75 percent, 40 percent goes to Northern California. The county’s share is based on population and the number of highway miles in the county. Using this formula, the county receives about $2 million annually. Gilbert said COG has been saving up the $2 million payments toward the $10 million the county has to pay toward the Highway 156 project. She said the “good news” was that the county would receive about $2 million from SB-1, while Hollister would receive $835,000 and San Juan Bautista $43,000.

She also explained SB-1 has $200 million of matching funds available to self-help counties. To be classified as a self-help county, it needs to have a transportation sales tax—such as the failed Measure P—to be eligible for some of those funds. Counties that have traffic impact fees also qualify for state grant funds, which is true for San Benito County.

When Velazquez opened up the meeting to speakers, Nathanael Lierly said that what he was hearing from the comments was that COG needed help in getting a tax measure passed. He said he would like to see how the outreach would be to people and tell them how they can help.

“I’m looking for how can we, as citizens, help with the tax measure because we’re not always the friendliest when it comes to taxing ourselves as a county, overall,” he said.

Robert Bernosky asked if there was a way to get waivers on project labor agreements to bring down the union labor construction costs of roads by as much as two thirds or half by employing local, non-union contractors. He also asked if the county wanted to widen Highway 25 and Santa Clara County if there is a way to annex the portion of the road from the county line to the 101. He said by widening it only to the county line it would create a bottleneck.

Greg Swett said until COG figures out that it will only be able to actually get one road fixed and not three (152, 156 and 25) unless there is a 12 percent sales tax, nothing will happen.

“Spending $110 million on 156 is not the answer,” he said. “Put that money into 25 and 152. If you expect 156 to be built out all the way from San Juan to Casa de Fruta, maybe when someone’s two-year-old grandchild retires he will see 156 built out.”

Peter Leroe-Munoz, a Gilroy councilman and former Hollister deputy DA, said he worked on Santa Clara County’s Measure B sale tax that passed and is slated to raise $6 billion over 30 years. He said the county is looking at the 101/25 interchange as a priority project because it is a choke point that needs to be addressed. He said, unfortunately, because of a lawsuit, the money being collected is sitting in an escrow account, holding up money for shovel-ready projects.

Wayne Norton, who lives in Aromas, said he understood Highway 25 is a major problem, but explained many of the roads around the county are a problem. He said as a plan develops he hopes it is remembered that people still need to get to parent-teacher conferences and other places every day on local roads. Amalia Ellis, executive director of the Hollister Downtown Association, said because of having to spend so much time in her car she had become very familiar with using the WAZE app to get around. She said wryly that, “apparently everybody else has, too.” She said because everybody is searching for alternative routes because of the congestion on Highway 25, WAZE is diverting them onto local roads. She also said mass transportation and more carpooling is needed.

John Ivancovich said the interchange at 101 and 25 isn’t the problem because even if it was improved it would not help with the congestion all the way to Hollister. He said the real problem is that Hollister is a bedroom community for San Jose and other northern cities. The solution, he believes, is to somehow make the northern cities pay the taxes to improve the roads that their employees use to go to and from their homes in Hollister. He said it’s unfair for companies to send their employees to Hollister to live when the city is not being paid to accommodate them.

“I don’t know what can be done as far as saying to the cities up there ‘you come down here and fix our roads,’ and ‘why are we building roads for your employees?’ That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “How you do that I don’t know. It might require a state law.”

Velazquez commented on some of the concerns brought up and the importance of making the effort to work on the various pieces and how they interconnect. He said it is the residents rather than elected officials who will decide the ultimate fate of the community. Anthony Botelho said people need to understand that any proposed tax measure for 2018 needs to be used to fix all roads and not just Highway 25. He said attention needs to be directed at what percentage of the tax would go to major roads versus others. Jim Gillio said the best solution to eliminating the congestion is to create more high-paying jobs in the county. He said the amount of money spent on economic development is dismal and the city doesn’t do a very good job working on it. He also credited WAZE for diverting people from the Bay Area traveling south through the county, only adding more cars to the congestion. Tony Boch said it would be years before Highway 25 can be improved. Meanwhile, he said people are turning other county roads into disasters. He said more attention has to be paid to the local roads.

“Fairview Road is dangerous,” he said. “Everybody wants to go 70 miles an hour on a two-lane country road. If you want to turn into a driveway, you better start signaling a half a mile ahead of time.”

Bock also suggested the intersection at Highway 156 and Union Road should be a roundabout or overpass because “you’re going to have a four-lane parking lot from 101 to Union Road because the trucks take so long to get going it backs everybody up.”

Jaime De La Cruz said the best comment came from the first speaker, Nathanael Lierly, who asked “what can we do as citizens to help you?”

“That was the damned best question I heard today,” he said enthusiastically.

Then Botelho quipped, “He’s a county employee,” which brought a modicum of humor to an otherwise serious meeting.

De La Cruz didn’t miss a beat, adding, “That’s what I wanted to hear today. All these secondary concerns, we can address those as we move forward to that target date of Nov. 2018 (general elections). We’ve got to start with that type of mentality. Let’s work together and let’s continue this discussion.”

He said there was an immediate need to start developing ground rules and hold more meetings.

“We don’t want to direct it; we want the public to help us so we can work together and move it together. Otherwise, without your support, this ain’t going to happen,” he said.

For more information, contact Mary Gilbert at [email protected] or call 831-637-7665, or visit the COG website.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]