Idea for Highway 152 as toll road worries nearby farmers

Eastbound traffic on Highway 152 is coming from Gilroy.

The possibility of Highway 152 becoming a toll road has some in the ag industry worried about what it would mean for business.

“I think it’s going to become an economic hardship,” said Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau.

Carvajal said she believes that if Highway 152 becomes a toll road, many farmers may try to find alternative routes to move their goods, which would put further strain on roadways in Merced County.

The toll road idea stems from a desire to expand Highway 152 from two to four lanes from Highway 156 near Casa de Fruta to Highway 101 in Gilroy. An eastbound climbing lane is also in the proposal.

The toll road would pay for upkeep of the expanded highway and part of the construction cost for Los Banos’ Highway 152 bypass.

To pursue the project, the Merced County Association of Governments has entered into a partnership with the Madera County Transportation Authority, Council of San Benito County Governments and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Jesse Brown, MCAG’s executive director, said he rejects the idea that the toll would hurt the local ag industry.

“I don’t think that analysis has been done,” Brown said. “There are things you like and things you don’t, (but) ask farmers if they would like a better way to get their produce into the South Bay.”

Brown also said a toll road is the only feasible way to obtain the money needed for the Highway 152 bypass.

Carvajal said she does not believe enough attention is being paid to alternative ways to raise money for the project. Proposed alternatives include using developer fees, leveraging federal funds through private investment and collecting a pre-construction fee.

Councilman Scott Silveira, who is also a dairyman, said the toll road idea would hurt the local economy.

“A lot of our stuff gets shipped out and comes back. What do you think that’s going to do to the price of that stuff? It’s going to get passed on to the consumer,” Silveira said.

Mike Davis of the Dos Palos Cooperative Gin Inc., which has 120 owners, said although he has yet to read the proposal in detail, he knows generally what a toll would mean.

“It’s going to be a huge impact,” he said. “I’m talking service trucks, tractors … we try to avoid highways in general, but you can’t always do that.”

According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, Merced County ranks fifth in the state in ag production value.

Paul Pimentel, trucking coordinator at Morning Star Packing Co., said his organization does a lot of business on local highways other than 152.

“(Whether there’s an impact) depends on the cost of the toll and where they’re located,” Pimentel said. “I don’t think we would change the route. We’re looking at the safest and quickest route.”

Possible toll booth areas being studied for Merced County include Highway 152 near Highway 59, Interstate 5 and Highway 33 toward Dos Palos. A 2010 revenue report estimates toll cost at $2.50 to $4 for one-axle vehicles.

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