Long-awaited U.S. 101 gates open Monday

The new northbound lanes are striped and ready to be opened just

GILROY
– When Gov. Gray Davis orders open all eight lanes of Highway
101 from Metcalf Road to Cochrane Road Monday around noon, the
largely ceremonial phone call he’ll place from the ribbon-cutting
ceremony near the Coyote Creek off-ramp will symbolize a lot more
than the unplugging of years of freeway c
ongestion.
GILROY – When Gov. Gray Davis orders open all eight lanes of Highway 101 from Metcalf Road to Cochrane Road Monday around noon, the largely ceremonial phone call he’ll place from the ribbon-cutting ceremony near the Coyote Creek off-ramp will symbolize a lot more than the unplugging of years of freeway congestion.

For the residents, politicians and business leaders with a hand in the five-year $80 million project, the breaking of the Highway 101 bottleneck puts cement to a loose but solidifying notion that South Valley has become a political and economic force in Santa Clara County and the state.

Since 1996, when voters approved the tax measure (Measure B) that funded Highway 101 and other freeway improvements, South County leaders fought to widen the scope of the project from three lanes on each side to four, won a court case brought against Measure B backers and convinced the federal government to grant more time to acquire open space to mitigate for impacts to an endangered butterfly.

“Three lanes wouldn’t have accomplished anything, and the other issues were huge hurdles because they could have shut us down entirely,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage.

Gage, along with Gilroy Mayor Tom Springer and Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy, served on the Valley Transportation Authority during the planning stages of the Highway 101 project. Kennedy’s term has since expired.

Springer, who was in Sacramento for the governor’s May budget revise, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But when a section of the project opened in February, Springer called the Highway 101 a “quality of life issue.”

“We’re talking about adding 10 minutes to a person’s life and taking away a whole lot of frustration people feel when they’re stuck in a bottleneck,” Springer said then. “Right now, you have people asking themselves, ‘Why should I go down there (to Gilroy) to shop?'”

Bill Lindsteadt, the executive director of the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation, uses one word when he’s asked about his feelings on the highway widening.

“Terrific.”

Lindsteadt’s chief function at the EDC is to bring new business to “garlic town,” a task that only gets easier when getting into and out of Gilroy is less difficult.

“I don’t think Lowe’s and Costco and other major stores based their decision (to come to Gilroy) on the highway widening,” Lindsteadt said. “It’s sort of a reach as far as their regional draw is concerned quite frankly, but we do know folks shopping at the local Costco are coming from San Jose because of parking and traffic issues at the one up there.”

Instead, Lindsteadt says, it is industrial development in Gilroy that should see more growth now that the highway is wider.

“Precision manufacturing, metal fabrication, all these types of companies will be able to get their products to market a whole lot easier when the freeway moves better,” Lindsteadt said.

Lindsteadt has been working with Gavilan College and the Small Business Development Center for several months to bring the biotech industry to Gilroy. Currently, a Canadian firm is trying to land the financial support to set up manufacturing of a new form of fire retardant here.

“Once you get companies noticing a difference in getting their product to market, there will be a ripple effect of other companies that want to come here,” Lindsteadt said.

Whatever happens to the economic climate of South County, commuters into and out of Gilroy should breathe much easier now that all lanes have been opened.

The Valley Transportation Authority predicts commute times to decrease by 12 minutes. In terms of speed, northbound and southbound commuters will be able to travel at 65 mph. Previously, speeds hovered between 28 and 35 mph averages.

The Highway 101 widening project is finished six months ahead of schedule. The VTA says the rearranging of the order of work was a large factor in speeding up the project. The change in scheduling added $2.1 million to the overall project, a tab the VTA justifies.

“When you look at saving 12 minutes a day moving goods and products into and out of the area, the widening project saves you $20 million a year,” said VTA Spokesperson Anne-Catherine Vinickas. In theory, being ahead of schedule six months is a nearly $8 million boost to the area’s economy.

Vinickas said she traveled the southbound lanes around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, just hours after those four lanes were opened.

“I’ve been slowed to a stop before even at that late hour, but yesterday it was clear driving at the predicted 65 mph,” Vinickas said.

Vinickas said traffic will run even smoother in July 2004, the expected completion date for the Highway 101 and 85 interchange project. The commuter lanes of those freeways will be directly connected when the project is done. Currently, when switching between the two freeways, car-pooling vehicles must cut across regular lanes to get back into the designated carpool lane of the other freeway.

“It means easier and faster access for all drivers because the mixed lanes will see no weaving from car-poolers,” Vinickas said. “It really helps everyone on the freeway.”

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