Toll roads and bridges are the norm in California’s big cities, but the central coast doesn’t have any. That could change. In this time of tight budgets and the lack of voter interest in increasing taxes, the Monterey Bay Area could get its first toll road.
When it’s not rush hour or the weekend, traffic moves smoothly on Highway 156 between Prunedale and Castroville. It’s a two lane road that connects highways 101 and 1, and for many drivers, it connects the rest of the state to the Monterey Peninsula. So when the road is congested, it’s a problem for locals, emergency vehicles and places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Access to the Peninsula i.e. congestion on 156 is an inhibitor to visitorship,” said Barbara Meister, Public Affairs Director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She sits at the center of an exhibit about plastic trash’s impact on the ocean. “And that bird thinks its food and that could lead to death,” said Meister. She says that message, which ties into the Aquariums mission of ocean conservation, is hard to get out if people don’t want to sit in traffic to get here. “Monterey as a destination has slipped in its ranking compared to its competitors: Santa Barbara, Napa, Sonoma, other places like that. So over time there will be less and less people coming if traffic and congestion are perceived as a big barrier to getting here,” said Meister citing industry research.
The Aquarium has long supported the idea of expanding 156 between Prunedale and Castroville, and the Transportation Agency of Monterey County has a plan in place. “It creates a new four lane facility that’s adjacent to the existing road, just to the east of it. And the existing 156 becomes a frontage road,” said Todd Muck, TAMC’s Deputy Executive Director. The proposal has two components. First that new four lane highway would be built, and later a new interchange would be added at highway 101. The total cost of the project is around $250-million. Four years ago, Monterey County voters rejected a sales tax increase that would’ve paid for this and other road improvements. That left TAMC with few options. “ If we want to, we can wait 20 years, and do nothing else in our county, and save up all the money, and do just the first phase of this project. Or we can look at tolling,” said Muck. If the new expanded highway was a toll road, it could pay for itself. And with that guarantee, Muck expects it could be ready by 2019.
Ed Mitchell with the Prunedale Neighbors Group is keeping an eye on the project as it progresses. Although he fought against the 2008 sales tax for road improvements, he’s not against the idea of expanding highway 156 or even adding a toll. He just wants to make sure North County’s voice is heard. “The public up here is not going to get to vote on this. The decision is going to be made by the 24 member TAMC board,” said Mitchell. He’s concerned about how a toll road would affect surrounding roads as some drivers look for ways to avoid paying the toll. “We want to ensure that an equitable solution occurs. And equitable means that the money for the project stays in this area, and actually cleans up the systemic jam, and not just a piece. And the money somehow drifts off to another location,” said Mitchell. He’s also concerned about the toll itself. Will there be an exemption or discount for locals and farm workers? TAMC hopes a study to be completed in November will answer these and other questions. “What would be the impact on the other local roads, the county roads and other state highways? And combined with that is what kind of toll would we need to charge in order to be able to construct the project?” said Todd Muck. A survey conducted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium of likely visitors to the area found people willing to pay up to a $5.00 toll. The TAMC Board will vote on the potential toll road early next year.