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City pulls support for Highway 152 funding

Highway 152 project

The Los Banos City Council unanimously voted to pull support from a project to widen Highway 152 near Casa de Fruta.
City staff presented 16 reasons against contributing $7 million of the $25 million needed for an environmental impact report on widening Highway 152 to four lanes between Casa de Fruta and Gilroy.
Councilman Scott Silviera and Councilwoman Elizabeth Stone were not present.
Public Works Director Mark Fachin called the estimated length of the environmental report unrealistic.
“It took 15 years and $5.5 million for us to get our bypass project past the environmental stage,” Fachin said. “I don’t believe the three years stated in the staff report is anywhere near realistic.”
The Merced County Association of Governments has entered into a partnership with the Madera County Transportation Authority, Council of San Benito County Governments and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. The goal of the group is to help pay for improvements on Highway 152 from Highway 156 near Casa de Fruta to Highway 101 in Gilroy.
The group is also exploring the possibility of a toll road, which would pay for upkeep of the expanded highway and part of the construction cost for Los Banos’ Highway 152 Bypass.
Under the partnership proposal, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority would front $12.5 million, with an MCAG commitment of $7 million from the Regional Improvement Plan fund, which is scheduled to purchase the right of ways necessary for the decades-old Los Banos Bypass plan.
Fachin said Los Banos needs the money in hand to be ready for funding.
“The way to get funding, if and when it does come up, is to have this project shovel-ready,” he said.
Councilman Joe Sousa said the council’s lack of support for Regional Transportation Impact Fees led to MCAG’s proposal to transfer funds to the partnership.
“I think that we, ourselves, enabled this process right here,” Sousa said.
The council will reconvene discussion on the suspension of the city’s contribution to RTIF at the Jan. 18 meeting.
The RTIF is a fee that developers pay when they build a project in the county that will increase traffic levels. The money collected then goes into a fund to be used for 13 different regional traffic projects, such as the Highway 152 bypass, the Atwater-Merced Highway and the Gustine Truck Route.
In a letter to the City Council, MCAG Executive Director Jesse Brown said there is no other funding opportunity for the construction of the Los Banos Bypass other than through the partnership.
“This benefits not only our region, the city of Los Banos and western Merced County, but also means that the next projects on our priority list will be realized sooner, by many years,” Brown said in the letter.
This isn’t the first time MCAG has redirected money aimed for the bypass. In May, the MCAG took $2.3 million set aside for the Los Banos Bypass and put it toward the Merced-Atwater Expressway project.

Look back for local reaction.