Gateway Study Blasted

$1 billion transportation plan a pie-in-the-sky, feel-good
Morgan Hill – The traffic bible meant to make driving around South Valley easier and safer is unfocused, overreaching, incomplete and financially unfeasible, those familiar with the report say.

Completed this fall by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the Southern Gateway Land Use and Transportation Study laid out a $1 billion plan to dramatically reshape the South Valley landscape with a batch of improvements and new roads in Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

But the transportation planners and politicians who helped craft the long-awaited and ambitious study are now saying implementing it will be impossible without significant changes, and meaningful solutions may lag decades behind the region’s expected growth.

And without a clear and manageable plan, the massive amounts of state and federal funding needed to complete the projects may prove impossible to attract. Even relatively small projects such as the $30 million plan to build a flyover at the intersections of Highways 152 and 156, which is finally scheduled for construction next year, can languish for years while funding is secured.

“I think what they’re going to do is some small things to ease up the pressure, but as far as any of the big ones, they’re at least 20 years away,” County Supervisor Don Gage said. “Part of the flaw is that they don’t have a real specific plan of what they want to do. They have a bunch of options, and with all the options it’s just way too expensive.”

They major goals of the gateway study are to:

• Widen Highway 101 from Cochrane Road to its intersection with Highway 156, just west of San Juan Bautista

• Widen State Route 25

• Construct new interchanges connecting all of the region’s major roads

• Extend Butterfield Boulevard from Tennant Avenue to Cochrane Avenue and turn it into Morgan Hill’s major north-south thoroughfare

• A new road leading from Highway 101 to Highway 156 and intersecting Highway 25

That road is the centerpiece of the so-called 3-in-1 plan trumpeted by San Benito County officials, who are desperate to build new roads in their county to take pressure off of Highways 156 and 25.

And VTA officials are so desperate to improve South County transportation conditions that they’re willing to invest in another county’s projects to help commuters and truck traffic find their way to San Jose. Transportation planners in both counties are concerned that if conditions don’t improve, South Valley will be overwhelmed with traffic from Monterey, Merced and even Stanislaus counties.

“I think what we’ve learned is that San Benito County is the gateway to the Bay Area,” San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho said. “Our county needs to have an understanding of what the best fit is for our future needs as far as land use planning and economic development.”

But critics of the gateway study say one of its biggest flaws is a lack of direction in San Benito County.

“If they try to keep everything in play, they’ll get nothing accomplished. San Benito County is too small and too poor to have everything,” said Eileen Goodwin, a transportation consultant who headed the VTA’s precursor, the Santa Clara County Traffic Authority. “There’s 152, there’s 25, there’s 156, there’s the 3-in-1. The study is fine as far as pricing and listing alternatives, but they need to send a clear message to the VTA and Caltrans so the projects can move forward.”

Bothelo doesn’t disagree. He called the lack of concrete priorities “our fault.”

“We’re going in too many different directions and we’re going to have to resolve that,” he said. “We have three major highway projects with limited funding and no community consensus.”

To get the projects moving, the VTA will likely try a “phasing” approach that could begin with minor projects such as widening 25 at a cost of $26.5 million, making improvements to 101 around Tennant Avenue in Morgan Hill for $10 million, or spending $70 million to widen 101 from the county line north to Monterey Road.

“It’s enormous and that’s why we tried to incorporate some element of phasing into it,” VTA deputy director John Ristow said. “Smaller, bite-size chunks. What those are and when it’s going to be is still a policy maker decision.”

And the study has a 50-year time horizon, which is almost unheard of in transportation circles.

“That’s an eye-opener,” Goodwin said. “Typically we plan in 20-year increments. Fifty years is a really long time to wait for transportation improvements.”

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