Willow Glen resident De Anna Mizradegan doesn’t understand why the Interstate 280 exit ramp near Meridian Avenue is constantly covered in trash. She’s contacted officials in San Jose and Santa Clara County to urge Caltrans to clean up the area, but claims the state agency has done almost nothing to keep this location clear of trash.
“You have to be on them constantly, and they put you off for a year,” she told San José Spotlight. “They’re not proactive and they don’t even react.”
Mizradegan’s concerns are echoed by local transit officials, who have grown increasingly frustrated that the state agency charged with maintaining Santa Clara County’s highway and interstate infrastructure can’t keep the roads and medians clear of trash or encampments of unhoused people.
VTA board Chair and San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones said local highways and interstates are in horrible conditions compared to those in neighboring counties.
“It’s a hot mess,” Jones told San José Spotlight. “The trash and debris on our freeways here in Santa Clara County is worse than what I see when I drive up to Alameda County or Contra Costa County or San Mateo County—it just seems like our county is under-resourced.”
Caltrans did not provide comment despite several inquiries.
Officials with local transportation agency VTA, which has its own highway infrastructure projects, criticized Caltrans during a recent meeting for failing to maintain the region’s highways. Dina El-Tawansy, director of Caltrans District 4 which covers most of the Bay Area, said the agency struggles to hire maintenance personnel in the county.
“One of the big things that has been really holding us back is the staffing,” El-Tawansy said at VTA’s meeting. She added Caltrans recently held a mass hiring event in the county, but the high cost of living is affecting the agency’s ability to recruit road crews locally. She also noted candidates must pass a drug test, which sometimes eliminates otherwise qualified hires.
Several local officials are perplexed Caltrans can’t find a solution to the staffing problem. VTA board member and county Supervisor Cindy Chavez said the county has many families receiving assistance who are looking for work.
“We can work with Caltrans to turn that pipeline on, so when they do mass hiring events, they have a bigger pool of people to choose from,” she told San José Spotlight.
Even if Caltrans does receive additional resources to increase staffing, VTA board members still take issue with their lack of clout with the state agency.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo repeatedly complained about Caltrans’ lack of investment in Santa Clara County. He noted that despite having the largest population of any county in the Bay Area, Santa Clara County ranks sixth in funding on Caltrans’ highway repair program in 2020, receiving just under $260 million.
“Why is it that Santa Clara County is consistently getting less than other counties in the district?” he asked.
VTA board member and San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez said state legislators could make jobs more attractive by setting higher salary rates for Caltrans workers in the district. He added Caltrans should invest more in the county.
“I think we should be getting a larger share of the pie in general,” he told San José Spotlight.
El-Tawansy said the agency’s investments are guided by its asset management plan, which sets 10-year goals for highway maintenance in districts across the state. She added there have been budget cycles where Santa Clara County has received more money than other counties.
“We’ve been challenged to really maintain Santa Clara County at the level we’d like,” El-Tawansy said, adding the problem extends to counties throughout the region. “We’re also seeing the same thing in the East Bay and other areas.”
Last year, Caltrans spent more than $5.7 million cleaning litter in Santa Clara County, according to the agency’s data, which was roughly 1/6 of the agency’s expenditures on litter. Caltrans also spent $469,380 cleaning graffiti in Santa Clara County—about 29% of the agency’s expenditures on graffiti in District 4 in 2021.
VTA board members also complained Caltrans doesn’t prioritize clearing homeless camps from its land in Santa Clara County. According to Caltrans data, the agency has cleared 37 encampments in the county since March 2021—fewer than were cleared in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
Mizradegan shares this concern. She claims people from a nearby homeless camp routinely cross the Interstate 280 ramp near Meridian Avenue in Willow Glen. She believes this poses a danger to the unhoused residents and drivers.
“I feel like with Caltrans, it’ll take a serious accident before something happens,” she said. “It’s sad.”
Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.
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