Fiscal caution and fear of litigation trumped the desire for local control, as the City Council shied away — once again — from taking over ownership of Highway 225 from Caltrans. Every councilmember argued in favor of local control and the improved pedestrian safety it could bring along Highway 225, which forms a 4.5-mile “U” throughout the city. But the additional road maintenance alone would cost City Hall $367,000 extra a year, and city crews already aren’t keeping up with existing repairs workloads. And by assuming control, City Attorney Steve Wiley warned, the council could be putting city coffers at risk to liability claims now directed at Caltrans.
From 1998 to 2010, he said, there were 634 collisions on that stretch of highway, 438 injuries, and six deaths. That’s twice the statewide rate. As scary as Wiley’s numbers sounded, a Caltrans official stated only 41 claims have been filed against the state in the past 29 years for accidents on Highway 225, of which the two biggest paid out for a combined $35,500. In the past 10 years, there have been no such claims at all.
The councilmembers were divided 4-3, and the split followed no predictable voting tendencies. In favor of taking over the state highway now were Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmembers Randy Rowse and Grant House. City Hall had been studying the matter for 20 years, they argued, and Caltrans had agreed to almost everything city negotiators had asked. Seeking more time to study the matter were Councilmembers Dale Francisco and Cathy Murrillo — the yin and yang of the council’s ideological spectrum — Bendy White and Frank Hotchkiss. Francisco argued it made no sense to assume the additional burden of road maintenance until City Hall had figured out what it could actually do to make the road safer for pedestrians. To get even a rough idea, he was told, would take six to nine months of cogitation by traffic engineers.