Transportation agency reverts to county model over AMBAG outlook

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Highway 156 is shown from a hillside.

The Council of San Benito Governments voted 3-2 on Thursday to shutter use of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Government’s regional transportation model in favor of the county’s own model.
The move could have an effect on future growth projections, economics and highway development, as well as regional money available for transportation projects. COG adopted the AMBAG model in 2010.
“It’s not unusual at all for counties to have their own models within a regional agency,” said Bob Scales, program director for Parsons, a consulting firm hired by COG to study the different models.
The change came after a recent AMBAG projection showed the county growing to 81,000 residents by 2035, a projection the City of Hollister and San Benito County contended was too low. The county’s model growth projection is 94,000 residents by 2035 instead, which is based on an earlier AMBAG and county forecast from 2008, before the local economy took a hit and at the end of a Hollister building moratorium. The vote Tuesday directed COG staff to adopt the county model but to bring back any changes that might also fit with AMBAG’s model.
“Regional traffic modeling is very complex,” said Aileen Loe, the deputy district director for planning and local assistance at Caltrans. “Local agencies frequently do have their own traffic models.”
She said Caltrans would be unable, by law, to recognize a model outside of the AMBAG model.
“The AMBAG model is important for a foundation,” she said. “There are risks proceeding outside the umbrella that over time could result in duplication of effort. We want you to be successful, and we want to make sure you’re using the right model.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he thought the county’s model could lose the county money for roads and highway construction because the county would no longer be within AMBAG’s umbrella.
“I’m struggling with the integrity of this model,” he said.
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz, who voted in favor of the change, said the county model would be in the “best interest” of the community.
The San Benito County Business Council sent a letter urging the board to keep working with AMBAG on a new model but also urged the board to send county growth projections to AMBAG for reconsideration. The board did vote to send county growth projections to AMBAG.
“One of the difficulties we had was that the AMBAG model was being updated by a private consultant firm,” said Steve Wittry, the public works administrator for the county. He said there were “issues of transparency” when the firm was working on the AMBAG model back in 2011 and the model was being reassessed.
“I think it’s just so hard to tell the future,” Botelho said. “Is the risk worth the gain?”
Councilman and COG Chairman Victor Gomez said that is why the board created an ad-hoc committee last month to deal with this issue.
“My primary concern is San Benito County,” he said. “Give me facts. Unless you come to me with specific facts … it pretty much means nothing.”

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