Highway 156 is a crucial thoroughfare for thousands of commuters, travelers and commercial trucks each day between the Monterey Peninsula and Highway 101, but the corridor is also crucial to a species on its own commute, the endangered Santa Cruz long-toed salamander. For years, any improvements to 156 – including a new and safer interchange at Castroville Boulevard – have been stalled as humans tried to figure out how to accommodate both highway and habitat.
The salamander, black with yellow spots or blotches, begins life in wetland ponds where eggs hatch larvae. They then go on to forage for food in damp places in oak woodlands until returning to ponds come breeding time. They are rare but tenacious – they were likely cut off from larger populations to the east and north possibly 2 million years ago and survived, well hidden, as the coast was developed. Their existence was discovered in Aptos in 1954, and in 2003 they were documented in Lower Cattail Swale on Elkhorn Slough Reserve.
“We’ve really invaded their historical range with lots of housing, farming and water development and yet somehow they’ve persisted over the last 150 years that we’ve had a big impact,” says Dave Feliz, reserve manager. The Elkhorn Slough Foundation has worked to help the salamanders survive, creating ponds “like stepping stones,” says Executive Director Mark Silberstein. “These animals are down to the wire.”
Highway 156 is another big impact, bisecting the salamander’s habitat. But now a planned interchange at Castroville Boulevard is finally moving forward because of Senate Bill 1231, authored by State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 28. The law allows the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to issue an incidental take permit for the salamander.
The Transportation Agency for Monterey County is now turning its attention toward finding an organization that will help the agency identify parcels of land used by the salamander and create a mitigation plan. That process could take at least a year. The agency has requested state funds totaling $20 million and expects Caltrans will be able to begin construction in 2022, lasting for about two years.
The interchange will include a bridge allowing traffic flowing east and west to continue uninterrupted and two offramps on either side for access to and from Castroville Boulevard, where there’s now a stoplight. Instead of traffic lights at the base of the offramps, there will be roundabouts for a safe and smooth flow of vehicles and bicycles.
“We have a traffic simulation that we just completed and it runs really well,” TAMC Principal Engineer Rich Deal says. “We’re extremely pleased with how efficient it can be.” The most anticipated benefits involve safety – the current intersection signal leads to broadside and rear-end crashes.
The interchange is phase one of a three-phase project that will include creating a four-lane highway to 101 and a new interchange with 101.