Los Banos council gets an earful on toll highway proposal

A standing-room-only crowd filled the Los Banos City Council chambers Wednesday to voice opposition to the proposed tolls that would dot Highway 152.

“Since I’ve been on the council, I think this is the most people I’ve seen at one of our council meetings,” said Scott Silveira, who was elected in November 2010. “It’s not the same people that we see every (meeting).”

City Council voted unanimously in January to pull support of contributing $7 million of the $25 million needed for an environmental impact report on widening Highway 152 to four lanes between Casa de Fruta and Gilroy. A 5-0 vote Wednesday formalized that disapproval.

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

The VTA’s goal is to help pay for improvements on Highway 152 from Highway 156 near Casa de Fruta to Highway 101 in Gilroy. MCAG’s No. 1 priority is to find funding for the construction of the Los Banos Bypass.

The toll road would pay for upkeep of the expanded highway and part of the construction cost for Los Banos’ Highway 152 Bypass. 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 costs at $2.50 to $4 for one-axle vehicles.

City Council took public comment for almost an hour Wednesday, in which residents lamented about how the proposed toll roads along the Highway 152 corridor would affect them.

Cameron Leshane, 22, said he commutes to Milpitas to work as a locksmith.

“If this toll road actually happens, I will have to leave this town,” Leshane said. “I don’t want to leave here.”

Real estate agent Jan-ette Boyd, 35, said she collected more than 700 signatures in about a week for a petition opposing any tolls.

“We want this not to be postponed, we want the idea to be completely dropped,” Boyd said, adding that she will continue to gather signatures.

Ultimately, MCAG makes the decision on whether the VTA project gets the $7 million. Mayor Mike Villalta said he thinks the unanimous vote and opposition by residents will have an effect on MCAG’s decision.

“With citizen input, it always has teeth,” Villalta said.

According to Lori Flanders, MCAG public information officer, a vote on the future of the $7 million will be on the agenda sometime in the future.

MCAG’s next meeting is at 3 p.m. Thursday at Gustine City Hall, 682 Third Ave.


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