Editorial: On bypass, our end of the deal doesn’t feel so raw

The bypass opened in early February 2009.

For a while, it looked as though San Benito County would take yet another painful blow to the chin from the state. Fortunately, and with a persistent, laudable push from local delegates, area residents will see a return on their tax investment in California and lose a significant financial liability.
Since the Highway 25 bypass concept came to fruition in the late 1980s, local government and downtown business leaders have expected Caltrans to accept the new road’s ownership in exchange for San Benito Street, formerly an extension of the state thoroughfare.
In the midst of California’s budget crisis – and no surprise to anyone who has watched the state hastily tighten its belt – Caltrans in the past two years has gradually dismantled the prospect and set itself up to watch a clout-challenged San Benito County whimper away as usual.
First, in 2010, the state agency ruled out funding for San Benito Street improvements with an exchange, claiming it never signed a binding agreement to pay up. Then in the spring of this year, Caltrans indicated it would not accept the 3-year-old bypass – and its long-term maintenance and legal liabilities – unless local governments fork over millions of dollars to bring the bypass up to “state standards.”
Caltrans had claimed an increased speed limit from 45 mph to 55 mph – OK’d by local governments after required speed studies – made a curve unsafe at Santa Ana Road. A fix would cost around $4 million. To throw fuel on the fire, Caltrans also pronounced several other discrepancies in standards that included the need for local funding on $1.6 million to improve “Best Management Practices” for drainage, while the city has been maintaining the storm drains; $450,000 for roadway cracking; $290,000 for hydraulics; and other items such as $50,000 to move vehicle detection loops at each intersection.
Despite the fact that Caltrans representatives advised local leaders throughout the bypass construction – hypocrisy personified – the total bill came to $6.6 million. Caltrans was pulling a classic play: Put up as many obstructions as possible to make the exchange realistically impossible. Whittle away our expectations to a point where catastrophe doesn’t seem quite so catastrophic.
With area governments already spending many millions of dollars more than initially anticipated through the half-cent Measure A sales tax in effect from 1989 to 1999 – the cost came to a whopping $54.5 million and shifted away funds from such projects as the North Street Extension – Caltrans’ reversal begged the nearly rhetorical question:
Would local government leaders and taxpayers have opted to build the bypass if they knew it would lead to such a crippling, unsustainable financial liability? Clearly, the answer is no.
Local proponents of the exchange, though, showed persistence in negotiations with Caltrans. With a new state director and new Region 5 director at Caltrans on board this year, the state agency finally accepted some level of compromise, agreeing to fund the bypass upgrades and start the process of exchanging the two roads.
For this county, it offers one guaranteed benefit and another potential boon. Dumping ownership of the bypass assures that the Council of San Benito County Governments – the intergovernmental transportation agency here – will not have to maintain two areas of liability: On the legal end, due to the prospect for major accidents on the road (there already have been a handful of wrecks at the Santa Ana Road curve), and with financial obligations necessary to maintain and eventually upgrade the highway.
It also means Hollister’s creative minds can get started on transforming the main drag and downtown as a whole into a more walkable, family-friendly, commerce-friendly district.
Local representatives in meetings with Caltrans – business owners Gordon Machado and Steve Rosatti, and COG Executive Director Lisa Rheinheimer – deserve kudos for drawing compassion from the state and drawing a line that made it clear: San Benito County was unwilling to accept such a one-sided concession.
For once, our end of the deal doesn’t feel so raw.
Note: Gordon Machado is an editorial board member and did not take part in deciding this viewpoint.

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