Supervisor refuses to honor retiring Caltrans director

Opponents of the Caltrans project have suggested use of roundabouts like this one.

In the world of local government, proclamations honoring employees’ service to the community are typically met with a few polite comments, a round of smiles and sometimes applause from the elected representatives giving out the recognition.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Council of San Benito County Governments Board of Directors, the elected representatives – comprised of officials from area government boards – were scheduled to consider a proclamation honoring Richard Krumholz, the Caltrans District 5 director set to retire April 3 after 32 years with the state agency.

Caltrans oversees traffic infrastructure, and San Benito County is included in District 5 along with Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz counties.

County Supervisor Anthony Botelho, one of five COG directors, objected to the proclamation at Thursday’s meeting and criticized the outgoing Caltrans director’s dealings with San Benito leaders over local projects. Botelho has long been an outspoken critic of Caltrans, largely for its handling of the $47.1 million Highway 156 expansion project, which the supervisor and many others in the historic San Juan Bautista area oppose while contending its scope should be lessened significantly.

The highway project is held up in the courts, as opponents are suing the state over the proposal’s size. The next hearing in the civil action is scheduled for April 28 at the San Benito County Courthouse.

COG directors did not ultimately vote on the proclamation Thursday, though COG’s staff Executive Director Lisa Rheinheimer contended the official recognition is still enacted and she noted that the board does “not necessarily” have to vote on such documents. As for Botelho’s opposition and the project’s status, Rheinheimer declined to comment.

That proclamation lauds Krumholz for collaboration on “a number of important transportation projects” and “recognizes and appreciates” his service, according to the document.

Botelho on Monday did not shy away from his critical comments in the COG meeting.

“I did voice my concern,” Botelho said in an interview. “I don’t think the district director deserves some standing proclamation from this county. I have felt he has been – he’s probably one of the most unresponsive state servants that I’ve ever encountered. I’m certainly hoping his replacement will have a better working relationship with the people.”

Botelho said it is not just the Highway 156 project at the center of his criticism. He also pointed to the long-delayed transfer of the Highway 25 bypass from Hollister to Caltrans in exchange for what Botelho called a “substandard” San Benito Street thoroughfare.

Krumholz responded to the criticisms over Highway 156 by saying Caltrans is “very anxious to see the legal stuff put behind us.”

“We are trying to deliver a very good, safe, cost-effective project to widen the 156 highway,” he said. “We’re experiencing increasing congestion and operational problems, and we are developing a very good project. Unfortunately, we’ve been delayed somewhat by two lawsuits regarding the environmental document.”

Botelho claimed Krumholz and Caltrans have been unresponsive regarding Highway 156, while Caltrans officials have attributed their relative silence to the pending lawsuit.

“We certainly developed some alternatives,” said Botelho, “and it would have been constructive to be able to sit down with Caltrans and see what was feasible.”

For Botelho, opposition to the highway project has been a constant theme during his nearly two terms in office. He is running in June for a third term in District 2 against challenger Arturo Medina, who said he agrees with Botelho’s objection to the proclamation. Medina said Caltrans is “moving forward with the most undesirable design, and the most expensive.”

“Unfortunately,” Medina said of Botelho, “he has not been able to negotiate with Caltrans to change anything.”

County supervisors have publicly supported the use of alternative design concepts presented by the “Save San Juan Valley” group. The board in July unanimously passed a resolution recommending that Caltrans use 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 say it would consider them during the project design phase. 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, 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.

The petitioners allege that Caltrans approved the project without adequate consideration of feasible alternatives – in particular those that came out of the July stakeholder meeting.

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