Soaring costs in Prunedale threaten 20 years of future county road projects.
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: The Long Unfinished Road-the Prunedale bypass project is far over budget and a long way off. The current construction is not bypass related.
A massive cost overrun on the project to improve the junction of highways 101 and 156 at Prunedale jeopardizes at least 20 years'' worth of future highway projects from Moss Landing to Carmel to Salinas. As a result, this fall, local politicians are faced with a gloomy choice.
Debbie Hale, the senior planner for the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC), has been on a tour of city council meetings around the county over the past few weeks bearing bad news-albeit in neat PowerPoint format. The situation is stark.
A longstanding plan to create a bypass around Prunedale, which would alleviate the congestion caused by local and transient traffic, has skyrocketed in price from $210 million to $646 million. (The current road construction at the 156/101 link is not directly related to the bypass project.)
The Prunedale project is partly a response to local problems, but it is primarily designed to deal with regional traffic issues.
"Prunedale is the bottleneck to the county. Everything has to move through that corridor," says Lou Calcagno, county supervisor and TAMC member. "So it wouldn''t do you too much good to build a four-laner somewhere else in the county and still have a bottleneck at Prunedale."
Elected officials are being told that the money to make up the difference simply doesn''t exist from federal, state or local sources. Some funding comes through the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) and the regional share of the state funds is $19 million. But it''s dire enough that TAMC has hired a Washington, D.C. lobbyist to try to peel off some more federal dollars.
A proposal for a local sales tax has also been floated. According to a recent study by TAMC, a half-cent local sales tax would generate $30 million for area road projects. Such a tax has to be approved by voters, and similar efforts failed in 1990 and 2000. Even if one were to pass, $30 million would only fund a portion of the projects on the drawing boards.
The TAMC board-which is made up of the county supervisors and 12 city council members from around the county-must decide what course to take by December. The agency will hold a public meeting on Sept. 25.
"This is our key corridor in the county and we need to figure out how to fix it," Hale says.
The consequences of the Prunedale decision are broad. According to TAMC''s estimates, the county population is expected to grow by another 135,000, and the state population is forecasted to surge to 45 or 50 million, by 2020. Prunedale is the link between the Peninsula and the inland highways.
The $430 million increase in project cost is blamed on delays as well as real estate price hikes and unforeseen environmental mitigation. An original right-of-way had to be adjusted because a landfill and some housing had to be avoided.
Oddly, TAMC also concedes in its explanation, the "$210 million estimate was always low."
When TAMC found out last October about the cost overrun and the California Department of Transportation offered that lame explanation, Hale says, "We said, ''Well thanks for telling us about that.''"
Hale has been presenting the situation to various local governments in recent months. The choice is either go ahead with the $646 million Prunedale project at the cost of everything else in the plans or try to do some cheaper version of Prunedale so the others can be spared. The cheapest choice is a $330 million "Safety & Operational Improvement" plan that some have criticized as a band-aid.
The list of jeopardized projects is extensive and expensive. At Salinas Road and Highway 1, an interchange is planned. It is scheduled to begin in 2010 to 2015, and cost $43 million. There''s a plan in the works to widen Highway 1 at Moss Landing for an estimated $200 million. According to Hale, the plan is further complicated by the power plant and the Moss Landing harbor, as well as the slough wetlands. "It''s on hold for now," she says. There is a $74 million plan to improve access to Highway 101 for trucks going to and from the food processing plants near the Salinas airport. Calcagno for one thinks the federal government should help with that project, as 2,700 trucks haul produce around the country from Salinas everyday.
"This shouldn''t be a community traffic problem," he says. "This should be the nation''s traffic problem."
Another interchange is being sketched out for Highway 1 near Sand City. A $40 million set of ramps would provide access to the southern end of Fort Ord and north Seaside. Some local streets would be improved. The environmental review is on tap for 2005 and construction might begin in 2018.
There is also an estimated $200 million plan to alleviate traffic on Highway 68 by providing a link to Canyon Del Ray Boulevard via the now-closed South Boundary Road on Fort Ord. The two roads would be connected at Laguna Seca. The environmental study is to begin in 2004.
Finally, although a truck-climbing lane is being added already, TAMC is requesting proposals to widen Highway 1 near Carmel between Rio Road and Carpenter Street to a four-lane highway. One preliminary idea is to handle local traffic buy digging a tunnel under the highway.
Not all of TAMC''s work is building highways. Local rail connections have also been in the works and are now jeopardized.
"We are still working on bringing rail service from San Francisco to the Monterey area," Hale says. There are two proposed lines. One would be an extension of the current San Jose commuter line that ends in Gilroy. It would be extended to Salinas, Pajaro and Castroville. TAMC has to work out a plan to build proper train stations.
The other extension of rail service would use the Monterey branch line and only go as far as Seaside. The plans are not too far off. Service might be installed by 2005. The commuter line extension is estimated to cost $25 to $30 million.
Bill Reichmuth, a city public works director who represents Monterey on the TAMC Board says whether or not the Prunedale interchange is fully funded might not make a difference in the very long run because highway projects move at such a glacial pace.
"Prunedale could be done and paid for before the other projects are ready to build," he says.