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June 14, 2021

Pinnacles National Park Highway: Gateway to a grocery store?

The idea to rename Airline Highway as Pinnacles National Park Highway seemed like a done deal with broad consensus. That no longer appears to be the case, with one supervisor altering his position in light of urging from detractors.
When Supervisor Jerry Muenzer first heard of the idea to rename Airline Highway as Pinnacles National Park Highway, he thought it was a “great idea,” he said.

“Then my second thought was, ‘Oh, everybody in south county is not going to like that.’”

The District 4 supervisor’s premonition of an opposition forming became a reality – as Muenzer soon realized after the county board in April voted to support the highway name change.

That name alteration to Airline Highway – also known as Highway 25 – would need the Legislature’s approval because it’s a state road, while Sen. Anthony Cannella and Assemblyman Luis Alejo have coauthored a bill to move ahead with it. They did so after hearing what seemed like relatively broad consensus from local government agencies, including a letter of support from the Council of San Benito County Governments, which oversees local transportation matters. Without any known opposition speaking up at the outset, it looked as though the bill would gain an uncontested approval.

Now, however, it looks as though the idea has lost that sense of broad consensus – at least on the board of supervisors and in south county.

Following pleas from constituents in southern San Benito County – largely concerned about their mailing addresses and familial attachments to the highway name – Muenzer has backed off his support to rename Airline Highway throughout the entire county.

He is instead preparing to propose calling it Pinnacles National Park Highway, but just from Highway 101 to Sunnyslope Road in Hollister near the Safeway store  – about 28 miles north of the park entrance. Muenzer said he plans to present a revised resolution at Tuesday’s board meeting.

He described complaints from what he estimated as a dozen south county residents – he believes many more have not spoken up – who oppose the change. The supervisor said some residents perceived it as “being shoved down their throat.”

As Muenzer noted, that April vote from supervisors involved the initial process of requesting feedback from locals. Since then, Muenzer said he has heard one grievance about the idea more than others.

“We’ve lived here for five generations, and it’s always been Airline Highway,” Muenzer said, reciting the often-heard complaint.

Aside from tradition, he said residents have expressed concerns about “health and safety” – with worries about possible confusion between 911 dispatchers and callers when reporting parties refer to the highway. He also acknowledged some south county people simply don’t like Pinnacles National Park and would rather not draw more visitors to the area.

“Yes, that’s another issue,” Muenzer said. “I knew there was a love-hate relationship with the Pinnacles.” He said he previously thought any disdain toward Pinnacles “basically centered around condors” – with the endangered species program active there for about a decade now – but he has realized it is “far deeper than the condor issue.”

For one, he said, there’s a belief in south county that the park draws too much traffic onto the unfamiliar, winding road.

“They don’t want to promote the Pinnacles,” Muenzer said. “I tell them we’re trying to promote the Pinnacles and bring economic vitality to the area.”

The proposal for the highway name change initially came out of a local Intergovernmental Committee meeting, where attending residents offered the idea. The Intergovernmental Committee is comprised of elected members from the county and two cities, Hollister and San Juan.

The two local state legislators brought it forward after hearing encouragement from local government officials.

Cannella spokesman Jeff Macedo, when reached Friday, said the office had not previously heard of the south county opposition.

“We’re going to carry forward,” Macedo said, contending that the promotion of Pinnacles is “good for the region.”

Legislation spearheaded by Congressman Sam Farr and Sen. Barbara Boxer changed Pinnacles National Monument to Pinnacles National Park earlier this year, with a dedication ceremony held in February. It has sparked a renewed effort to promote the area and reap benefits to the local economies. The park’s west entrance is in Soledad – where officials launched a “Gateway to the Pinnacles” branding campaign within days of the park’s status upgrade – while Hollister and Airline Highway lead into the east entrance in San Benito County.

With Pinnacles in his district, Muenzer has supported expanded promotion of the park to boost the local economy. He was, after all, the county supervisor who traveled to Washington, D.C. and lobbied in favor of giving it national park status. With a prospective, partial switch on the highway name, he is hoping south county residents would get used to it and eventually come around.

“Maybe they’ll be receptive to it down the road,” he said.

If the county isn’t clear in its direction for the highway name, though, it could translate into skepticism at the state level.

“In general terms, COG Executive Director Lisa Rheinheimer said, “if there’s opposition to this type of legislation, it’s not very well received by the Legislature.”

Rheinheimer said it is “best to wait and see what the board of supervisors says” at the upcoming meeting.

Residents opposed to the highway name change could not be reached immediately.

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