A Disappointing But Thoroughly Appropriate End to the Prunedale Bypass One Last Indignity: A Gubernatorial Veto

By Joe Livernois

SOUNDTRACK: “Working on the Highway” by Bruce Springsteen

It should be noted, for posterity or something, that the Prunedale Bypass has suffered one final ignominious setback.

This time, it came on Oct. 4 in the form of a governor’s veto. And, once again, it left local transportation officials disappointed and feeling powerless. But in the context of the Prunedale Bypass, a gubernatorial veto seems poetically appropriate.

The fact that any lingering issues regarding the bypass might still exist was stunning. I thought the Prunedale Bypass was dead and buried long ago, entombed in a shrine engraved with a pithy epitaph about government inefficiency and squandered opportunity.

Imagine my surprise to learn that Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, had carried legislation this year that, if passed, would have finally put the Prunedale Bypass to rest once and for all, and in a way that might have benefited Monterey County at least a little.

The paltry sum the county would have received was like being awarded the booby prize for a last-place finish.

For an entire generation of North Monterey County residents, policy-makers and bureaucrats, the Prunedale Bypass had been the defining political issue.

Politicians built and ruined their careers over it. Property owners were forced to give up ribbons of lands. Families who lost sons and daughters on the old blood-alley thoroughfare of old Highway 101 turned the bypass into their personal campaigns. Moneyed interests on the Monterey Peninsula eagerly awaited its completion so as to end the bottleneck on 101, because tourists can never arrive fast enough. County bureaucrats invested incalculable time, energy and resources to get the thing built.

Depending on who you talked to, the bypass would have either solved a lot of problems or was yet another government boondoggle.

Many decades ago, the state had acquired hundreds of acres of right-of-way for the bypass. Today, with the bypass a dead deal, the state needs to dispose of 353 acres of old right-of-way property it owns. Caballero’s law would have insured that any money the state earns by selling the land — maybe up to $10 million — would be used for other highway projects in Monterey County,

In the context of all that has happened — or hasn’t happened — over some 50 years with the Prunedale Bypass, the paltry sum the county would have received from the sale of the property would have been like being awarded the booby prize for a last-place finish.

“It’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the state’s general fund,” said Debbie Hale, executive director of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County. “But it would have been very helpful for us to have that funding.”

The Assembly and the Senate both approved AB 696 on consecutive days in September on slam-dunk votes.  But then Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it. It was his second veto on the issue in two years. Last year then-Assemblyman Luis Alejo forged a similar bill, but Brown also turned thumbs down to it.

In his veto message earlier this month, Brown said that money earned on sale of the right-of-way will pay off state transportation bonds. “Maintaining this funding stream to the General Fund is even more necessary when the state’s budget remains precariously balanced,” he wrote.

In other words, the state wanted the money for its own ends.

Access on and off or across the busy highway from those roads always felt like a terrifying, high-stakes game of Frogger.

Back when it seemed like a good idea, well-intentioned locals did what they could to make the bypass a reality. They occasionally chartered and filled buses bound for Sacramento so that Monterey County would be duly represented at key transportation committee hearings. A part-time lobbyist was contracted to do Monterey County’s bidding.

Eventually, the state declared that Monterey County and other rural counties could compete with the big urban counties if they could show a willingness to put their own money where their needs were. If Monterey County could prove that its citizens were willing to pay a “fair share” to build the bypass, the state would pony up the rest. The formula is referred to as being a “self-help” county.

What followed was a series of local ballot measures — four of them, in all — asking voters in Monterey County to impose tax increases on themselves to help pay for a package of roads-and-transportation projects. The Prunedale Bypass was always a star attraction for those measures.

The first of those ballot initiatives, Measure B, was approved by voters in 1989. It was considered a signature achievement — a tax increase approved by taxpayers. County officials started collecting millions of dollars in additional sales tax, and they set it all aside for highway projects like the bypass. But the vote was eventually ruled unconstitutional. County officials thought they needed a simple majority to pass the tax increase, when in fact the measure required 67 percent of the vote. To its embarrassment, the county was forced to reimburse county residents in an awkward and cumbersome process.

Years passed. Ballot measures came and went. Monterey County transportation officials spun their wheels trying to coax highway funds from state and federal governments. Traffic jams and bloody accidents continued to mount. And estimated construction costs for the bypass soared. By 2002, the estimate exceeded $645 million.

When it became evident the money would never come, transportation officials gave up on the bypass. They went with Plan B, completed two years ago. The results of Plan B are what motorists see now when traveling along Highway 101 through Prunedale. Interchanges were built and side-road access points were simply sealed off. That alternative was cheaper by at least half.

And so the Prunedale Bypass is now, finally, once and for all, an exasperating memory.

Its final chapter came with a whimper and the governor’s veto.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.