Highway 152 toll road, funding speculation draw ire

Eastbound traffic on Highway 152 is coming from Gilroy.

A study on widening Highway 152 and installing a toll road as well as an attempt to approve minutes of a meeting that never happened have drawn the ire of Mayor Mike Villalta.

Villalta, who called it “dirty government,” believes the incidents are proof that moves are being made to turn the highway into a toll road without the public’s knowledge.

“It’s always been a toll road plan. If you think about it the only way you can construct that road is either tolling the whole facility or tolling east of Casa de Fruta,” Villalta said. “You can’t just toll parts of it because it won’t pay itself off.”

The State Route 152 Mobility Partnership is working on a project expanding Highway 152 from two to four lanes from Highway 156 near Casa de Fruta to Highway 101 in Gilroy. Ten funding options for the project have been studied. Tolling is one of the choices being considered. Some of the money from the toll would be used to construct Los Banos’ Highway 152 bypass.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority – one of the Mobility Partnership members, along with the Merced County Association of Governments, Madera County Transportation Authority and the Council of San Benito County Governments – commissioned a study on the widening plan.

The study, which was completed in February, states that MCAG has agreed to give $7 million toward a $25 million environmental impact report on the highway widening. Villalta, who is a MCAG and Mobility Partnership member, said no vote has been taken on whether to give the $7 million. He sees the statement in the report as proof of a con job.

“There are two scenarios here: Either MCAG knows it has the votes and that’s why they guaranteed it, or they (MCAG officials) guaranteed it themselves,” Villalta said.

He said the other counties in the Mobility Partnership duped MCAG to try to get money.

“We joined this without any financial commitment. My belief is that they orchestrated this … the plan has always been for us to contribute $7 million, Madera not to contribute a dime and San Benito County not to contribute,” Villalta said.

MCAG Executive Director Jesse Brown said he is aware the study exists, but he has not seen it. Brown said MCAG has not promised to give $7 million for the highway widening environmental impact report and the document’s claim that it has is wrong.

“I don’t know if it’s a legitimate document, it hasn’t been approved,” Brown said.

He said the study will be approved by Caltrans District 4. The district is based in the Bay Area and includes Santa Clara County. Merced County is in District 10.

VTA Highway Program Manager Margaret Simmons-Cross said MCAG helping fund the widening EIR has been an “ongoing discussion.” She said the study is a draft that has not received final approval from Caltrans. She said MCAG will have to determine internally whether it will give the $7 million.

VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress said money has held up the study’s approval.

“We can’t finalize the document until that’s resolved,” Childress said.

Childress and Simmons-Cross said the funding issue may be worked out in two to three months.

Brown said turning Highway 152 into a toll road is not a done deal, but he believes it may be the best option for getting the Los Banos Bypass.

“I think it may be the most feasible way to pay for it,” he said. “We’ve tried to get the funding we need (from state and federal agencies) and haven’t been successful. Since we are a fairly poor county we need to take on a partnership.”

Villalta attended a Mobility Partnership meeting last October in Gilroy. The meeting did not have a quorum, but at the group’s April meeting in Los Banos there was an attempt to approve the minutes of the October gathering. The VTA study states that the widening project’s vision statement was adopted at the October meeting.

Villalta blocked the vote on the October meeting’s minutes. He said because the widening plan’s vision statement was on the agenda and was discussed informally by Mobility Partnership members, he believes approving the minutes was supposed to be a way to move the project closer toward selecting the toll road option.

“This is dirty government. With the salaries of the people at the April 13 meeting, you mean to tell me not one of them knew you cannot approve minutes for a meeting that doesn’t have a quorum?” Villalta said.

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