A group of Morgan Hill residents hopes to settle the question of whether Monterey Road through the city’s downtown should be reduced to two lanes by letting the voters decide.
Sally Casas, who lives in downtown Morgan Hill, is the proponent of an initiative for which she and a group of like-minded locals are currently gathering signatures. If they get verified signatures from at least 10 percent of Morgan Hill’s 27,956 registered voters—and the petition is certified by the city clerk—then the initiative will qualify for an upcoming election ballot.
“I feel that this (changing Monterey Road) is a huge step for the whole community and I think the voters should have a choice,” Casas said.
Casas began publishing a “notice of intent to circulate petition” in the Morgan Hill Times earlier this month. She and local attorney Armando Benavides—who are part of the group “Voters Choice for Monterey Road”—began collecting signatures on Saturday. State referendum law gives them about six months to reach their goal of 3,500 signatures.
The ballot title listed in the published legal notice is, “Citizens’ initiative amending the General Plan to require voter approval of any future Monterey Road lane reduction.”
The ballot summary reads, “The measure is proposed to add a new policy to the Transportation Element of the City’s General Plan. If adopted, the new policy would require voter approval in order to implement any future Monterey Road lane reduction through Downtown Morgan Hill.”
The downtown strip of Monterey Road is typically defined as the stretch between Dunne and Main avenues.
The notice states that the proposed measure “mandates that Monterey Road shall be a four-lane thoroughfare with an option to reduce it to two lanes through the downtown. It provides that only the voters through an election can exercise the lane reduction option.”
Those opposed to a Monterey Road downtown lane reduction and the city’s preferred “traffic calming” measures cite the possibility of increased congestion on the thoroughfare and surrounding downtown streets as their top concerns.
Other residents and city officials for several years have tried to convince the public that a slower, narrower Monterey Road through downtown would improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. Proponents say that slower and fewer vehicles on the street could cut down on noise, exhaust fumes and other environmental impediments to comfortable outdoor dining and the family-friendly vibe that planners and businesses have sought for the neighborhood.
On May 19, the city council voted 3-2 to reduce Monterey Road from two lanes to one lane in each direction by installing “traffic calming,” landscaping and other beautification elements to the downtown streetscape. The city’s plan includes using the untraveled lanes and street parking spots for a wider cyclist/pedestrian lane as well as more space for shops and restaurants to expand, or for people to gather freely for activities or relaxation.
The effort is projected to cost up to $400,000, including design costs. Assistant City Manager Edith Ramirez said the public will have a chance in the coming months to provide input and suggestions about the design of the new two-lane Monterey Road streetscape.
City staff expect to present a proposal for the project installation in the fall, and the city council will be asked to provide their own updated direction. The initiative effort doesn’t necessarily change that schedule, but Ramirez noted that “ample community engagement” is encouraged in the design process and public council discussions.
Downtown Morgan Hill restaurateur Frank Leal said he was “bummed out” by the news of the initiative effort to prevent a makeover of Monterey Road. The owner of MOHI restaurant, Leal has advocated for improved safety for guests, employees and pedestrians since the Covid-19 pandemic pushed more dining outside, often right next to the busy street. He purchased and installed heavy concrete barriers last year between MOHI’s curbside dining patios and the edge of Monterey Road vehicle lanes to protect diners from a potential collision.
“A thriving community is how businesses survive, and without thriving businesses you don’t have a thriving community. I wish folks would look at it along those lines,” Leal said. “It’s frustrating—the whole purpose of the lane closures is based on safety and activation (of street spaces). It’s not only good for business, but also for the safety of our employees and guests.”
Morgan Hill has been fiercely divided on the concept of reducing Monterey Road downtown from four lanes to two since before a six-month 2015 “road diet” experiment showed slightly slower travel times but fewer reports of accidents. Some detractors noted that the experiment caused many commuters to spill onto residential side streets to avoid the congestion, often causing even more problems.
Council member Rene Spring said this was his reasoning for voting against the upcoming traffic calming project in May. As a resident of northwest Morgan Hill, he noticed more traffic on his residential street during the 2015 experiment.
“We might make downtown a little bit safer, but that’s at the expense of our neighborhoods becoming less safe,” Spring said.
Council member Yvonne Martinez Beltran also voted against the Monterey Road proposal in May, instead voicing her support for less invasive traffic calming measures.
Benavides added that a complicating factor in the 2015 experiment was the lack of adequate street infrastructure, and the city hasn’t done enough to improve that situation. The new Hale Avenue extension around the west side of downtown (currently under construction) is supposed to relieve congestion, but that project won’t be completed until 2025.
Furthermore, with recent state laws overriding the city’s limits on residential construction, the region’s growth will be largely “uncontrolled” for the foreseeable future and add more strain to the roadways, Benavides added.
“Nothing has changed in terms of infrastructure” since 2015, Benavides said. “But there has been an increase in population.”
Leal pointed out that the opponents of a Monterey Road lane reduction seem to place a high priority on being able to drive across town as quickly as possible. He noted that a traffic study of the 2015 road diet trial showed that commute times from one end of downtown Morgan Hill to the other increased by an average of only one minute.
“I’m disappointed that a community would give up safety over 60 seconds (of travel time). I don’t get it,” Leal said. “We’re just trying to make a downtown where people feel safe, and want to visit and spend money, and the city earns tax revenue.”