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May 27, 2023

State gives firm approval to fund 156 expansion

The California Transportation Commission recently committed to funding the state’s portion of money for the Highway 156 expansion project, with construction now slated to start in the summer of 2020.

The state panel made that decision in March to confirm funding the state’s portion of the $57.4 million expansion from two lanes to four lanes between Union Road and The Alameda, with a roundabout at Bixby Road. The start date has been moved from the fall of 2019 to July 2020, meanwhile, due to planning issues such as the need to acquire property through condemnation and dealing with utility relocation, according to officials and planning documents.

Still, the expansion is slated to start in the same construction season as previously planned, just following the winter season when such work is customarily put on hold.

“As Caltrans is working through the right-of-way acquisition phase of the project, it’s taking some time,” said Mary Gilbert, executive director for the Council of San Benito Governments agency that oversees transportation issues in the community.

More significant for local officials and advocates for an expansion, however, is that the CTC gave final approval on the project’s funding in March. It is now fully funded with the help of $9.6 million in local traffic impact fees. It’s a big step forward from just two years ago when a funding crisis for transportation projects at the state level left an air of uncertainty surrounding the 156 expansion, Gilbert said.

“So then by virtue of new legislation and new funding sources through Senate Bill 1 (the gas tax), the state transportation improvement funding is healthier,” she said.

County Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he was frustrated with the level of communication on the project and frustrated by the lingering acquisition issue.

“I wasn’t too happy to hear that,” Botelho said. “They’ve known about this and the alignment of the highway for quite some time now. Why haven’t they entered into negotiations sooner?”

Still, Botelho is pleased the project will move forward because congestion continues getting worse on the inter-regional highway to go with housing growth in the area as well.

“It’s a needed project regardless if one more nail is pounded into a piece of wood,” Botelho said. “This is a regional road, and the region is growing. The economic development continues to expand in Central California. We’re seeing those impacts.”

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, for one, has been critical about the pace of housing growth locally due to lacking traffic infrastructure with two highways in and out of Hollister that are each two lanes.

With it now being seven years since the approval of environmental documents on the Highway 156 project, Velazquez cautioned at the amount of time it could take to get Highway 25 widened as well.

“I think it’s very important that we get these roads fixed,” he said. “We have the firm date now for 156. I think everybody should understand how long it took to get 156 done. We need to get a decision made by the community to support the widening of 25.”

He put a plug in for an upcoming transportation sales tax headed for the November ballot because the state does not appear willing to fund the Highway 25 project, since it’s a commuter road and not a regional highway.

“This is why we have to try and work with Santa Clara County to merge 156, 152 and 25 so it becomes more part of the system,” Velazquez said.