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Monterey County’s principal traffic agency is on the verge of trying to improve traffic conditions on Highway 68, also known as the Monterey-Salinas Highway, in a roundabout way. Literally.

Thursday night, three transportation officials made a presentation in support of replacing all the traffic lights on Highway 68 between Blanco Road in Salinas and the Monterey Airport with roundabouts, also known as traffic circles. The panelists were Debbie Hale, executive director of the Transportation Agency of Monterey; Grant Leonard, a TAMC planner and the point man on this project; and Rich Deal, traffic engineer for the city of Monterey. Mike DeLapa, executive director of LandWatch, was the moderator. They spoke to a lively group of about 75 residents who braved the humidity and Route 68 rush-hour traffic to attend the meeting at San Benancio Middle School.

While informational, this presentation was basically a hard sell of roundabouts, giving very short shrift to any other options. It may be that roundabouts are safer than traffic lights, as alleged. And it may be that roundabouts will improve the flow of traffic on Highway 68, although crawling along at 20 mph or less through the circles may be more of a slow drip than a flow. But for those of us who were previously force fed traffic lights all along this 15-mile “corridor” (the term used by the planner) because they would make the highway safer, allow a bit of skepticism about this “flavor of the month” safety improvement.

Whatever is decided, the money will come from voter-approved Measure X. Addressing existing congestion on 68 is the No. 1 priority for use of that money. The TAMC board is scheduled to vote on the roundabout plan this month, starting a process of construction design, right-of-way acquisition and environmental review that could take more than three years to complete before actual roadwork could begin.

Deal gave a lengthy description of the roundabout that is just being completed on Holman Highway (Highway 68 west), next to Highway 1 and the entrance to Pebble Beach. As a former designer of freeways, Deal said he much preferred designing a roadway that is environmentally friendly. He showed a diagram of the new roundabout, which includes a bike/pedestrian path over Highway 1, sparing bikers and walkers the nightmare of vying with cars and trucks in the roundabout. When asked why there was only one roundabout on this part of Highway 68, Deal said the money was limited. He said additional roundabouts are being proposed to replace the light at Community Hospital and the light where Highway 68 enters Pacific Grove.

Are there options other than roundabouts? Yes. Highway 68 can remain as is, an option that some in the audience favored. Or there could be a bypass at Corral de Tierra and San Benancio roads, which would allow traffic from these two busy side roads to enter and exit 68 without traffic lights stopping the flow of traffic.

This is an option suggested by Mike Weaver of the Highway 68 Coalition. It has been an option since the Las Palmas development was built. As part of the Highway 68 traffic mitigation for that project 19 years ago, money was given to the county to buy 11-plus acres next to the highway just north of the Corral de Tierra stoplight. This acreage makes the building of the bypass possible – no more land needs to be purchased. However, TAMC’s Leonard said the bypass alone would cost $25 million. In contrast, he put a $50 million pricetag on all the proposed Highway 68 roundabouts.

Another option is “adaptive signals,” that is, making the Highway 68 signals talk to each other, so that the green lights can be synchronized. This would also speed the flow of traffic. However, according to Leonard, this option costs at least $34 million, and it has been apparently rejected because of the cost.

How many roundabouts would be built? The intent is to place them on 68 at Josselyn Canyon Road, Olmstead Road, State Route 218, York, Pasadera, Laureles Grade, Corral de Tierra, San Benancio, “New Torero” and Blanco. Leonard said there may also be a roundabout at the Ragsdale intersection. The “New Torero” designation is for the expected improvements to the Torero intersection, at the Toro Park subdivision, which will be funded by the money from the developers of Ferrini Ranch. Leonard said that because the Ferrini Ranch development has been approved by the Board of Supervisors, and even though it is in litigation, TAMC must factor in the money the developer has to pay to mitigate the development’s traffic impact. TAMC has not played an active role in limiting development along Route 68, despite the fact that fewer vehicles using the road on a daily basis would make the highway safer.

The panelists observed that the roundabouts would not increase the capacity of Highway 68, which they acknowledged is used by far too many vehicles. Its design capacity is 16,000 vehicles per day, and currently it accommodates between 25,000 and 32,000. The primary reason to build roundabouts is that they are expected reduce accidents by keeping traffic moving. One study has shown that travel time on the entire route at peak hours would be reduced by approximately 5 minutes if the roundabouts replace the stoplights.

One person who spoke up is an avid biker who likes to bike “the loop,” the roadway that loops away from the highway San Benancio to Corral de Tierra. He asked how the roundabouts would affect bicyclists, who now can ride on the shoulders of Highway 68. If the roundabouts were built at both San Benancio and Corral, bicyclists would have to navigate the traffic circles while hoping not to get rear-ended by road-raged drivers. The bicyclist suggested a frontage road but the idea was met with a shrug. Clearly, some users of Highway 68 have not been given much consideration in this proposed plan for roundabouts. On the other hand, drivers of 18-wheelers will be happy to learn that their rigs will still be welcome on this scenic highway.

For those who remember when Route 68 was a two-lane road connecting Salinas and Monterey, be advised that TAMC also plans to widen Route 68 to two lanes in each direction between the airport and York Road, as well as between Toro Park and Corral De Tierra. Thus, our scenic highway will become a scenic freeway for the most part, and there will still be a few places for drivers to come roaring up in the right lane to cut in front of you as you enter one of the remaining parts of the two-lane highway. That widening of Route 68 has a price tag of $107 million.

There is a bright spot in all of this. The state has become very interested in protecting wildlife by building corridors for them to safely get over or under highways, so that they can still wander over their entire habitat. We were informed that even if the roundabouts are not built, and even if the widening is not done, the state will help improve the “connectivity” for wildlife at 10 locations along Route 68. The state would help pay for the expansion of drain pipes to make them big enough for deer and other wildlife to get through, so they can go from one side of Route 68 to the other.

According to Hale and Leonard, this plan will be presented to the TAMC board at its August meeting for approval. Once approved, the plan is sent to the state Department of Transportation for its review and comments. But since the money for the roundabouts will be taken from the Measure X taxes, a local source, the state will not be required to give its approval. Once TAMC gives the OK, it can follow the state’s suggestions or not. The public can write comments on TAMC’s website at this time, as well as after the plan comes back to the county after the state’s review.

How many roundabouts would be built at one time? No one knows for sure. Also, no one at TAMC knows how long it would take to build all the projected roundabouts. And no one knows how the construction process itself would hurt traffic flow on an already challenged roadway. The planners expect there would be more traffic on Imjin Road, which also connects Marina to the Salinas Valley.

One wonders what it would take to reduce the carbon footprint on Highway 68 –- to build light rail connecting Salinas and Monterey and to run electric buses for employees, as Silicon Valley employers do. Yes, it would take a lot of money. It would require a bolder view of the future than replacing traffic lights with traffic roundabouts. It would require embracing measures that actually reduce the number of gas-guzzling cars and trucks on Route 68, thereby reducing pollution, improving safety, and eliminating some of the worst road-rage drivers in the county.

My hope is that someday we will return to the San Benancio School and discuss our disappointment with the roundabout plan as we review TAMC’s plans for reducing the vehicles being driven daily on this beleaguered scenic highway.

Ann Hill is a retired lawyer who lives near Highway 68.

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While preparing to ask Monterey County voters to approve a sales tax increase to finance highway improvements, the Transportation Agency for Monterey County is also preparing to repay the state $821,858 because an audit found the agency had failed to follow standard procurement procedures when it awarded four construction-related contracts totaling $9.4 million.

The procurement problems, including lack of competitive bidding, loose purchasing protocols and non-existent spending limits, were uncovered in a Caltrans audit of TAMC contracts from for July 2011 through May 2013.

A 2014 letter from Caltrans to TAMC identifies the recipients of those contracts as the Parsons Transportation Group, which is one of the nation’s largest engineering and consulting firms, and a California company, Harris & Associates, which maintains an office in Salinas.

TAMC originally awarded Parsons a $974,000 contract to design light rail systems connecting Monterey to Marina and beyond and connecting Salinas to the Bay Area. Caltrans auditors complained that the contract was awarded without appropriate competition, without any valid cost estimate for the work to be performed, and without any cost cap or completion date. Over time, the contract was amended and extended 12 times and ended up costing TAMC just under $9 million although the rail projects remain unfunded. As with most TAMC projects, Caltrans was the source of most of the money.

As a result of the audit, Caltrans initially sought to collect some $9.4 million from TAMC, contending that numerous standard contracting procedures were violated. In one case, Harris received a contract after having been hired to essentially write the specifications for that contract, Caltrans found. Auditors contended that amounted to a conflict of interest.

TAMC officials disputed most of the points raised in the audit but have adopted numerous procedural changes recommended by Caltrans and have agreed to provide procurement training to its staff.

While Caltrans sought to recover the $9.4 million,  two years of negotiations between the agencies resulted in an agreement in June under which TAMC will reimburse Caltrans $821,585 each year for 10 years. The money is to come from the local agency’s reserve funds. The agency’s executive director, Debbie Hale, told her board of directors that the agency could pay the full amount now but decided it would be better to keep the reserve fund healthy.

TAMC is essentially a transportation planning agency and joint powers agency linking most of the political jurisdictions in the county. It is governed by a board consisting of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and representatives of most of the cities in the county along with other agencies. The Caltrans audit faulted TAMC for having lent money in the past to some of the member agencies, most recently Monterey-Salinas Transit.

Hale said this week that her staff provided Caltrans with ample documentation to disprove many of the audit findings, “but basically they had their mind made up – you can tell that by the tone of the audit.”

She denied that Harris was involved in any conflict of interest and said that regional Caltrans officials approved TAMC’s processes only to be overruled by state-level officials.

Hale said TAMC agreed to receive additional training so the agency, along with regional Caltrans officials, can understand what the auditors want to see. She said the agency has prepared a 200-page procurement manual that awaits Caltrans approval. Among the auditors’ concerns was that the agency had few written guidelines for procurements and the awarding of contracts.

Hale said the state agency appears to be conducting audits of relatively small transportation agencies in an effort to prop up its budget because it is difficult for a state agency to increase its revenues. Such actions, she said, demonstrate why TAMC needs an additional revenue stream, the planned sales tax measure.

“Frankly, this is exactly why we need local money. It is locally controlled with local oversight, and the state can’t take it away.”

The agency hopes to put a sales tax measure on countywide ballot next year, one that would raise the sales tax by three eights of a cent. Because of other potential tax measures on the ballot, however, the amount sought might have to be lowered.

The larger amount would raise about $20 million annually, some of which would be used directly for road work and some of which would be used to leverage additional state and federal dollars.

TAMC has been conducting surveys and performing various outreach efforts in preparation for the tax measure. It awarded a $135,000 contract earlier this year for those purposes. TAMC’s last effort to boost the sales tax received a majority vote but fell short of the required two-thirds vote.

The audit and the $821,000 penalty are no secret – many of the details are posted online — they have received virtually no public attention until now, something of a surprise considering that more than a dozen elected officials sit on the TAMC board. One board member, who asked not to be identified, speculated that no board members “saw any advantage to speaking up.” A representative of the Monterey County Taxpayers Association was at a TAMC board meeting in June at which Hale gave a brief update on the plan to reimburse the state.

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