The Long Road to Agreement
San Juan Buatista, CA – San Juan Bautista has a feel of the Old West. Chickens roam freely. Historical buildings line the streets. And the 1797 Mission holds mass every day. But just on the edge of town, the past meets the present on Highway 156. The highway is a heavily traveled route between the Central Coast and the Central Valley. Harriet Hollowwa watches traffic from her cherry booth alongside the highway. "Every day in between 4:30 to about 6:00 this is what it's like," said Hollowwa as she motioned to the slow moving traffic. Her booth is where 156 shrinks from four lanes to two, just past San Juan Bautista.
A plan to expand the highway aims to improve the flow. "The two lanes is just not adequate anymore for the future demand," said CalTrans Project Manager Richard Rosales. The design adds a new four-lane highway through nearby farmland. It spans a five mile section of 156 between San Juan Bautista and Hollister. The existing highway becomes a frontage road. "We'll gain some side benefits such as removal of fifty or so access points. Those will be consolidated to a county road," he added.
But the project has been mired in conflict. A group called "Save San Juan Valley" sued CalTrans over its Environmental Impact Report. Then in what was seen as a David versus Goliath decision, the group won. A judge ordered CalTrans to address several issues including noise and the impact on farmland. "San Benito County is a special place with its agriculture and historical background . And I have always felt that we should all try to protect that," said San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho.
The CalTrans design takes up 145 acres of farmland. Botelho says that's too much. "My biggest issues have always been the loss of prime farmland and the economic impact that has when you take land off the tax rolls, productive land that employs people," he said. So he and other community leaders created an alternate design. Like the original, it adds a four lane highway, but with a narrower median. Botelho says that saves valuable farmland. The old highway still becomes a frontage road, but with a bike and walking path. And the alternate design uses roundabouts in intersections instead of stop signs or stoplights. "Right now a lot of the noise is from the trucks breaking and taking off again at these stop lights whereas if you have these roundabouts you slowdown to 20 to 25 miles an hour," said Scott Fuller who worked on the design. The thought is slow traffic could help local businesses. "We can't take much advantage of just a four lane expressway where trucks and cars are zooming through here. But we can take advantage of a road that can showcase San Benito County," Fuller added.
Recently, the group shared its design with CalTrans. After fourteen years of heated discussion, it seems both sides are finally at the table. "Like most people in the group, you know, I think I wasn't the only one that had some skepticism, but I was pleasantly surprised about how we were able to agree on key issues," said CalTrans' Rosales. CalTrans will consider the alternate design, and hopes to break ground on some version of the highway expansion next year.