LOS BANOS -- With cheering and applause from an audience topping 100, more than a dozen people voiced opposition to a toll road proposal last week in Los Banos.
The State Route 152 Mobility Partnership panel took no action in relation to the plan, but held an extended public comment portion.
Former Assemblyman Rusty Areias, who spoke during the public comment, said he encourages a continued partnership among counties, "but this toll road is one of the dumbest damn ideas you all have come up with."
The Merced County Association of Governments has proposed contributing $7 million, from state and federal gas taxes, of the $25 million needed for an environmental impact report on widening Highway 152 to four lanes between Casa de Fruta and Gilroy. MCAG funds would combine with $15 million in state funding and $3 million from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, or VTA.
The Mobility Partnership includes MCAG, the Madera County Transportation Authority, the Council of San Benito County Governments and the VTA.
The partnership's goal is to help pay for improvements on Highway 152 from Highway 156 near Casa de Fruta to Highway 101 in Gilroy. MCAG's No. 1 priority is to find funding for the construction of the Los Banos Bypass, a $450 million project. A toll road on Highway 152 has been proposed as a way to pay for both.
Michael Evanhoe of VTA said the California Transportation Commission has called for a toll road study.
"This is something the state imposed on us and said, 'We want you to look at the whole corridor,' " Evanhoe said.
All of the speakers at the open forum expressed opposition to a potential toll road, with one man comparing it to the former Soviet Union and another shouting out that the meeting should be adjourned.
Deborah Lewis, a Los Banos planning commissioner, said she is concerned about the commuters of Merced County and the Valley, who might find it cheaper to move to the Bay Area.
"I don't see where anyone in this area is going to benefit from a toll road," Lewis said.
Josefina Rodriguez, manager of V.H. Azhderian & Co., said tolls would stress already struggling shipping companies.
"We are shippers, and this will be a really big major problem for us," Rodriguez said.
Supervisor Jerry O'Banion said Merced County is the closest it has ever been to realizing the Los Banos Bypass. He said Santa Clara County has greater clout in the state than its Merced counterpart.
O'Banion said it is important to discuss all of the options.
"I oppose tolling from Highway 99 to the city of Los Banos," O'Banion said. "But, I've also said let's look at what they're talking about, and what would be the impact on tolling of the new bypass of Los Banos."
Los Banos Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at email@example.com.