Continue Dialogue on Widening Issue

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When the Free Lance needs an illustration showing traffic, the
assignment is easy. We can always send a photographer to Highway
156.
When the Free Lance needs an illustration showing traffic, the assignment is easy. We can always send a photographer to Highway 156.

In particular, the stretch of highway bottlenecking at San Juan Bautista. There is traffic at the spot all day, and in the mornings big rigs and commuters often jockey for position as the narrowing occurs.

Last year Caltrans announced its intent to widen the highway into four lanes. The announcement was met by shrugs in some quarters of San Benito County, but San Juan residents immediately voiced strong disapproval. And at a San Benito County Council of Governments meeting last week San Juan City Manager Jan McClintock went so far as to call Caltrans proposals “Draconian.”

Something will have to be done at some point. Caltrans has reached that conclusion. The time to expedite dialogue is now. We applaud the current dialogue taking place. We urge that the conversation become refined and streamlined. There are a lot of voices being heard, and more to be heard from.

Residents and town officials fear that a Highway 156 expansion will invite an increase in traffic – and its byproducts, like pollution – that would devastate the tourism-agricultural-hometown quaintness of the Mission City. Opposition to three Caltrans proposals was perhaps best summarized by county Supervisor Anthony Botelho, who represents San Juan Bautista, when he said “we want to find an alternative that leaves the smallest footprint on the region. It’s in the best economic interests of the area if we don’t destroy what we have.”

Balancing the classic nature of San Benito County with the need for progress will become an even more intense process in the years ahead. The subject of widening Highway 156 while preserving the historical stature of the Mission City is a prime example of the challenge. It is why the dialogue is drawing participants from across the county.

As it stands, Thursday’s COG meeting resulted in the creation of a subcommittee whose purpose will be to gauge public opinion. Supervisor Pat Loe, as part of the committee, has said she will try to ascertain why so many residents of San Juan oppose the project. This is a good start.

Caltrans, for its part, has said it will listen to input from residents in hopes of a workable solution. Spokeswoman Susana Cruz said, “We have to juggle the pros and cons of our options with COG and the residents.” She also said if all involved determine that widening absolutely will not work, the project could potentially be “nullified.”

We tend to think the project will not be nullified, that by the projected start date of 2009 we will see something go forward. We would like to see something that works for residents. Apparently, the most popular alternative proposal is a new four- to six-lane highway connection that would come at an estimated cost of $1 billion. At the moment this sounds a bit unrealistic.

It points up the need for accelerated dialogue. Effective dialogue. No one wants to see the Mission City compromised. But most people see the need for improvement of Highway 156. It is better to work with Caltrans now than have something forced upon residents later – 2009 will come quickly.

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