Caltrans commits to funding bypass upgrades

Bypass funding

A local delegation met with Caltrans officials this week and obtained a commitment from the state agency to fully fund millions of dollars in upgrades that were deemed necessary before a swap could occur in which the city receives control of San Benito Street in downtown Hollister.

Council of San Benito County Governments Executive Director Lisa Rheinheimer, Hollister Downtown Association President Gordon Machado and Penny Wise owner Steve Rosatti met in Sacramento with head Caltrans officials that included state Director Malcolm Dougherty.

At the meeting, Caltrans agreed to fund the estimated $4 million toward improvements to the curve north of Santa Ana Road, Machado confirmed.

The state in the spring contended that an increased speed limit from 45 mph to 55 mph – approved by local governments after required speed studies – made the curve unsafe. Caltrans indicated it would not go forward with a long-planned exchange of roads – the state was to get the bypass, largely funded by local taxpayers, and Hollister would receive San Benito Street – if area agencies could not fund the upgrades.

The decision this week, albeit informal, means Hollister could finally be on a path toward owning downtown’s main drag – a move some business and government leaders believe would benefit area commerce and curb hassles from the state over access to the road for activities. Caltrans expects that to occur within a year, Machado said.

The $54.5 million highway bypass was conceived in the late 1980s, with initial funding from the Measure A sales tax – 1/2 percent – from 1989 through 1999. COG opened it in early 2009 with hopes of allowing a more fluid route from the city’s northwest entrance to the southeast side – which is expected to experience continued growth relative to other areas of Hollister – while also opening up walkability for downtown.

Machado and Rosatti, both downtown business owners, have been involved with Measure A since its inception. Their meeting with state officials followed a similar talk in Sacramento about a month and a half ago. Machado said Caltrans leaders in the latest meeting initially agreed to fund half of the improvements at the curve. When the local delegates noted how there is no money available locally, state officials said they would find the money to get the job done.

With an exchange of the two roads, though, Hollister will get San Benito Street and its relative state of disrepair. Local government leaders for years have expected the state to pay for upgrades to the downtown road – because Caltrans would be receiving a newly constructed highway in the bypass.

“I think it was a good win,” Machado said. “It was a hard win – we’re just lay people.”

Even Machado was surprised they arranged a meeting with Caltrans’ top official, Dougherty.

“You can’t go any higher than that,” said Machado, who called the director a “nice guy.”

From here, local governments and the state agency would have to formally approve an agreement. Rheinheimer has scheduled a special Council of San Benito County Governments meeting for 10 a.m. Tuesday to consider the matter.

Rheinheimer, before releasing a meeting agenda Thursday, said she wanted to hold off on commenting about it.

As for any official Caltrans comment, its spokesman said it was “premature” to confirm any kind of deal.

“We’ve had some meetings and discussions to try to resolve the issues,” spokesman Colin Jones said.

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