Settlement talks continue in Highway 156 lawsuit

The group that sued CalTrans to stop the proposed $47.1 million expansion of Highway 156 through San Juan Valley is open to a settlement that would have the project take less prime ag land while replacing the busy two-lane road between San Juan Bautista and Hollister with a four-lane highway.

Richard Morris, a member of the “Save San Juan Valley” group that in 2009 successfully sued Caltrans over the original environmental impact report on the project and recently filed suit against the supplemental EIR, said this week that “we’ve been trying to settle with them – we made a proposal” that includes not separating the eastbound and westbound lanes, taking less farmland by reducing median width and using the current road as a multi-use pedestrian and bicycle trail.

“The state is broke,” said Morris, a retired attorney. “If they can do the same thing for less and not beat up the people, you’d think they’d be interested.”

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors in July unanimously passed a resolution recommending that Caltrans use Hwy. 156 design concepts drafted by a group of community members earlier in the year. Among the ideas proposed during a two-day brainstorming session involving 15 government and business leaders were turning the current highway into a paved access road, creating the multi-use trail and installing three roundabouts in lieu of signalized intersections between Hollister and San Juan Bautista to help with traffic flow.

While a supplemental EIR certified in August did not include the proposed design concepts, Caltrans “did commit to considering these concepts during the project design phase,” Mary Gilbert, the transportation planning manager for the County of San Benito County Governments, said in a report last week.

As of September, Caltrans had done a preliminary review of the design concepts, including a reduced median width and using roundabouts instead of traffic signals at intersections. Following that approval, however, Save San Juan Valley filed suit against Caltrans once again, challenging the agency’s processing and approval of the supplemental EIR and alleging violations of the California Environmental Quality Act.

According to Gilbert’s report to the COG board, the plaintiffs allege that Caltrans approved the project without adequate consideration of feasible alternatives – in particular those that came out of the July stakeholder meeting.

“Due to the nature of the lawsuit and its reference to the proposed new design concepts, Caltrans’ legal counsel has directed Caltrans District 5 staff not to make any decisions regarding the designs until such time as judgment is made in the case,” Gilbert said in her report, which also noted that while Caltrans is in the process of defending the lawsuit, it “is also pursuing settlement discussions.”

Morris said Save San Juan Valley made a proposal “that we can live with but we are reserving our right to challenge whether this is the best route for trucks anyway.”

Gilbert this week said that COG staff members have talked to Caltrans and that the agency is “fully committed to moving the project forward.” Calls to the Caltrans public affairs department and project manager Richard Rosales were not returned by press time this week.

COG is not named in the lawsuit, which will delay the project until a settlement is reached or the supplemental EIR is ruled to be appropriate. Design work on the new Hwy. 156 is scheduled to continue through 2014, with right-of-way land acquisition taking place over the next three years.

Construction on the project is scheduled between 2014 and 2016.

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