Millions for Highway 25 traffic safety

Traffic flows along Highway 25 Monday where improvements will include median dividers and intersection upgrades.

The Hollister City Council unanimously approved $10 million of
Redevelopment Agency funding Monday for Highway 25 safety
– a precursor to the proposed $177 million lane widening
scheduled to break ground in 2009.
The Hollister City Council unanimously approved $10 million of Redevelopment Agency funding Monday for Highway 25 safety improvements – a precursor to the proposed $177 million lane widening scheduled to break ground in 2009.

Details of the safety improvements project have not been finalized. Officials from the Council of San Benito County Governments hope construction starts within two years, according to COG transportation planner Lisa Berg.

“Safety on Highway 25 is urgent,” said Mayor Brian Conroy, also one of five COG directors.

The goal of the safety improvements is to reduce potential for head-on collisions and provide more roadway for agricultural vehicles, according to documents provided by the CHP.

The Council initially approved $10 million to the county-administered safety improvements in June 2002. Monday’s decision, according to RDA Director Bill Avera, “confirms what we previously adopted in June of last year.”

COG, which is currently in the planning stages for the project, will choose one of five proposals recommended by the California Highway Patrol, according to CHP Capt. Bob Davies.

Whatever strategy COG selects, officials hope to lessen the risk of accidents along the area’s deadliest road.

The current considerations for use of the $10 million include median divider walls, intersection improvements and work on driveways, Davies said. All the improvements funded by the $10 million would likely occur within San Benito County, he said.

Since February 2000, there have been 21 fatalities on the 14-mile stretch, from Hollister to U.S. 101. The proposal to eventually widen the highway to four lanes would include a center barrier.

“I think the bottom line is we need to do whatever it takes to make this road safe for the residents of Hollister and (the county),” said Councilman Tony LoBue, who quite often urges safe driving practices on Highway 25 during Council meetings.

Initial stages of safety improvements began in the summer of 2000 and included widening of the highway’s shoulders and highly reflective striping. The cost from 2000 until now has been $7.7 million, according to Caltrans.

The safety improvements for which funding was allocated Monday would be the final safety upgrades before a scheduled groundbreaking in 2009, officials said.

“That should be it before we get the four-lane widening project going,” Davies said.

Officials said time is critical and hope to maximize benefits from the safety improvements before lane widening construction begins.

“If we have a dedicated staff, and a Board (of Supervisors) pushing it through, we can get it done very quickly,” Berg said.

City officials plan to fund the commitment through a $35 million bond series, the largest such issuance in city history. The bond approval – which is essentially the bearing of a debt – will be on the June 16 Council meeting agenda, according to RDA Director Bill Avera.

If the Council does not approve the bond, Avera said Hollister would still be obligated to the deal with the county.

“We still have a commitment there,” he said. “We still have tax increments, and we still would be able to make that commitment.”

He added, “I’m guessing not in one year, though, because we don’t have that kind of a reserve.”

The RDA fund currently maintains $14.2 million, much of which has already been earmarked for specific projects. Avera called the $35 million bond “necessary” for future projects. Considering Hollister’s property tax base, Avera said the RDA is eligible for a $75 million bond issuance.

City Manager Dale Shaddox expressed an air of confidence regarding the relatively massive debt and the $10 million allocation.

“The sizing of the bond is very, very conservative,” Shaddox said. “This line item… is a small part of it.”

Councilman Robert Scattini asked city staff whether RDA dollars are legally eligible for construction on Highway 25, much of which falls out of RDA jurisdiction.

City Attorney Elaine Cass affirmed the city’s reasoning that Highway 25 safety improvements will directly benefit Hollister. Avera said more desirable access to the city will ultimately boost Hollister’s potential for economic development.

COG had previously considered seeking $2 million in federal funding for the safety improvements, according to Berg. However, federal requirements would have entailed a lengthy environmental review process – a duration she said the county could ill afford. COG is still vying for federal grant funding, which now stands to go toward the proposed lane widening.

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