Rough riding

Santa Ana Valley Road winds through the hills.

I must have clocked nearly two hundred miles this week driving between my home in north Monterey County and the expansive roads of San Benito County.

I don’t mind usually, the passing scenery of golden hills and agricultural fields that look like they were created by aliens from outer space are a visual thrill to this country-buff. Plus, I got to drive to Casa de Fruta off the Pacheco Pass Highway where I met Gene Zanger and his lovely sister Suzan Slater, who were celebrating the iconic roadside restaurant’s fiftieth anniversary, a welcome stop to generations of travelers and passing motorists.

While I did not mind the extra miles, I don’t think I can say the same for my long-suffering Volkswagen Beetle. The bumpy roads and congestion on Highway 25 and Highway 156 take a toll on the silver bullet. I was stuck in a diabolical traffic jam last Friday afternoon just outside San Juan Bautista on Highway 156, which caused some motorists to pull over on makeshift shoulders and the center median to keep their cars from overheating. As a parade of vehicles tried to circumvent the build-up by driving through Rocks Road, a helpful gentleman sipping a bottled beer outside his trailer on the country lane warned us not to bother. “Fridays are always like this. Go back.”

My plight is not an unusual one in this growing region. As more people chase Silicon Valley jobs and developers build housing to accommodate them, San Benito County policymakers and engineers must grapple with how to address crumbling roads rated “poor” based on their average Pavement Condition Index score and mounting congestion on the region’s bustling highways, and do so with little in the way of available funds.

Unlike residents in neighboring Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Monterey Counties, San Benito county voters failed to pass a 30-year sales tax measure last year that would have generated much-needed funds to fix local and county roads and ease congestion, leaving local policymakers with a big problem on their hands.

Business owners got the scoop on the county’s state of the roads at a recent lunch discussion facilitated by the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, covered this week by reporter, Nick Preciado.

According to Preciado’s reporting, an analysis of San Benito County’s 673 miles of roads conducted last year by an engineering firm estimated that $398 million is needed to maintain and fix county roads. While the state has finally made a move earlier this year to raise state gas taxes and vehicle license fees to generate funds for the state highway system and local roads, the amounts floated are a proverbial drop in the bucket.

The tax and fee increases should generate $660,000 for the county this year, business leaders learned. Last year the county received $118,000 for its portion of the state’s gas tax revenues.

It won’t be easy, but let’s hope the creativity and expertise of San Benito County policymakers and traffic engineers can work magic and create an avenue to build smoother roads ahead.

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