Los Banos mayor blasts Hwy. 152 plan as money grab

The flyover was another major construction project on Highway 152.

Plans to use money from Merced County to widen Highway 152 in neighboring areas and create a toll road to pay for it have drawn the ire of Los Banos Mayor Mike Villalta.

“There’s nothing in it for us – they want our $7 million to fund their projects,” Villalta said.

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.

MCAG is being asked to contribute $7 million toward a $25 million environmental impact report on widening Highway 152 to four lanes between Casa de Fruta and 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.

Officials hope funding for the bypass will come from a combination of state, federal and local dollars.

A final decision has not been made on whether Highway 152 should have a toll or the location of the booths.

Villalta said he has not spoken with consultants about whether a toll road is a good idea, but he’s against it.

Jesse Brown, MCAG’s executive director, said the toll road is Los Banos’ only chance to get its share of money for the bypass.

“Do you want a bypass or not?” Brown asked. “In my opinion, in order to find the money to build the bypass we will need a toll road.”

Villalata rebutted Brown’s assertion.

“He can’t say that. He doesn’t know where the money will come from. No facts have been presented,” Villalta said. “Why should we give money for them to put a road through San Benito County?”

Brown said Los Banos residents who commute to the South Bay would likely appreciate the four-lane widening project.

Villalta is also upset that improvements planned on the Highway 152 trade corridor, which includes eight road projects totaling $730 million, are all in San Benito and Santa Clara counties.

In May, the MCAG took $2.3 million set aside for the Highway 152 bypass and put it toward the Merced-Atwater Expressway project. Villalta fears another pool of money will soon be leaving Los Banos’ control.

“They took our money once before and they’re trying to do it again,” Villalta said.