Toll road idea parked before gaining speed

By Corey Pride / Cpride@losbanosenterprise.comDecember 27, 2012 

Thousands of Los Banosans commute to the South Bay to work each day, and 2012 was the year when discussion surfaced about turning Highway 152 into a toll road.

The toll road idea stemmed 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 was also proposed.

The toll road would have paid 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 entered into a partnership with the Madera County Transportation Authority, Council of San Benito County Governments and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. MCAG was asked by the group, known as the Mobility Partnership, to contribute $7 million toward a $25 million environmental impact report on the widening.

Jesse Brown, MCAG's former executive director who retired this summer, spent the first half of 2012 touting the plan as Los Banos' only option to get its bypass.

"Do you want a bypass or not?" Brown asked in January. "In my opinion, in order to find the money to build the bypass we will need a toll road."

Many people disagreed. Some in the ag industry worried about a toll road's impact. Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said she believed it would create an "economic hardship." 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.

The Los Banos City Council subsequently passed a resolution to formally oppose the toll road idea.

In April the Mobility Partnership met in Los Banos and received a firsthand account from local residents who thought the toll road was a bad idea.

From the beginning, Mayor Mike Villalta declared the toll road plan a money grab by the bigger counties involved.

"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.

He was particularly upset in June when internal Caltrans documents surfaced declaring that MCAG had promised to provide the money requested for the widening's environmental impact report. The MCAG board, of which Villalta is a member, did not vote to give the money to the project. Villalta called the document, and an attempt to approve the Mobility Partnership meeting that did not have a quorum, "dirty government."

Led by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the Mobility Partnership decided to disband in July. VTA officials said they are still interested in the widening project but will pursue other arrangements to get the money. A toll road does not appear to be imminent, but it has not been ruled out.

Enterprise reporter Corey Pride can be reached by phone at 388-6563, or by e-mail at cpride@losbanosenterprise.com.

Enterprise reporter Corey Pride can be reached by phone at 388-6563, or by e-mail at cpride@losbanosenterprise.com.

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