Viewpoints

Here’s why the dangerous El Campo/U.S. 101 crossing must close — now

A lawsuit filed by a winery company that put on hold the El Campo and U.S. 101 safety improvements that were to start this week came as an unexpected and crushing disappointment to us.

Vintage Wine Estates, new parent of Laetitia Winery, filed the lawsuit last week blocking construction of safety improvements at El Campo Road, Tower Road (Laetitia’s entrance) and two other crossings of U.S. 101.

After our son, Cal Poly freshman Jordan Grant, was killed at the El Campo/Highway 101 intersection on Oct. 7, 2018, when Rich Giuli made an unsafe left-hand turn across U.S. 101, we have fought long and hard to obtain unanimous approvals from all government jurisdictions to eliminate these unsafe left-hand turns. Caltrans agreed to construct median barriers at El Campo, Tower Road and two other crossings, as Caltrans believes any partial closure at El Campo needs to be replicated at Tower Road to avoid a different unsafe road condition arising, that of U-turns on Highway101 at Tower Road.

Jordan’s accident happened seven weeks after Suzie Smith’s Lexus was hit there the same way, with serious and life-altering damage to her back and brain. Think about that. It was just seven weeks between those two identical accidents. That is why we take any delay, even a few weeks, caused by the Vintage vs. Caltrans litigation as unacceptable harm to public safety.

We called for a boycott as we recognized that this was an intentional business decision by Vintage Wine Estates to try to maintain wine tasting traffic (even though with the expected safety changes their customers would still have had access to their winery but some would have to drive a little further). So they intentionally chose to delay the safety improvements at El Campo as an understood consequence of their litigation decision.

Vintage is gambling that they can quickly negotiate a better outcome with Caltrans for their Tower Road access and protect their profits from wine tasting traffic making left turns into their winery from southbound U.S. 101. But to do so they have had to take the safety improvements at El Campo, as Caltrans, rightly or wrongly, has all four crossings tied together.

So Vintage is gambling that no one else will be injured or killed at El Campo or the other three crossings while these safety improvements are on hold. Is it OK with you that they make this gamble for several weeks (maybe months, maybe years) with your son or daughter’s life on U.S. 101? Gamble with your wife or husband’s life? Would you have agreed and offered that to them, all in support of protecting their profits? We do not agree. That is not a reasonable and responsible exchange of potentially someone’s life for profit.

Imagine if Caltrans was about to make these safety improvements on Oct. 1, 2018, and Vintage sued on that date to put them on hold. Jordan would be killed seven days later while negotiations were underway between Vintage and Caltrans. So no, we do not agree. That would not be a reasonable and responsible exchange of Jordan’s life for profit.

Over the last 48 hours, I have been working with Pat Roney, their CEO, and other executives and do believe them to be honorable, well-meaning people who are excellent additions to the South County community. I like them and am working with them to achieve the mid-term goal — to build within five years a desperately needed underpass/overpass in this area to meet a range of community needs, as well as Laetitia Winery’s access needs.

I agree that Vintage cannot be held responsible for what the previous owners of Laetitia Winery did in 2011. At that time, Laetitia threatened a lawsuit to prevent these same safety changes being made to Tower Road and El Campo — changes that were designed, funded and prescribed by Caltrans engineers as necessary corrections to unsafe road conditions.

Laetitia’s old owners were successful and satisfied to stop the safety changes and then leave it there, allowing injuries and deaths to follow — leading up to Suzie’s accident, then our cherished son Jordan being killed. That was not a reasonable and responsible exchange of Jordan’s life for profit.

However, I also believe that this is not who Vintage Wines Estates, the current owners are. While we have disagreed about the lawsuit, they have expressed full support for the partial closure of El Campo and the other median crossings.

We understand they want to see a different answer for Tower Road and a commitment by Caltrans to an under/overpass in this area in two to five years. I respect and agree with them for the work they are doing to help the neighbors around El Campo and myself achieve the goal to get an overpass built in the next five years.

What role has Caltrans played in getting to this point?

The central and most significant role. Caltrans failed to fix these crossing in 2011 when they had the funding and their engineers told them it needed to be done. Caltrans has continued to be obstinate in refusing to consider my suggestions for a J-curve turnaround at Tower Road to handle the U-turn concerns and to leave Laetitia unharmed by the El Campo safety changes.

Even the SLOCOG staff included a J-curve in their Dec. 5 PowerPoint presentation. Caltrans refused to listen to the new owners of Laetitia, leaving them believing they had no option but to sue to be heard and protect their rights. Laetitia was identified as a stakeholder in the planning document leading up to the scheduled safety changes, yet at the end of the day, was not listened to.

So while valuing and respecting the relationship being rapidly built with Vintage Wine Estates executives those of us who want public safety put first will continue to oppose the delay in safety improvements caused by the litigation.

Caltrans and Vintage need to resolve the litigation quickly. Given what Vintage has told us, we have moderated many of our proposed activities, pending the results from meetings being worked on with Caltrans.

We recognize and have a full understanding of Caltrans central role in creating this problem by failing to resolve Laetitia’s access issues during the planning over the last seven months and Caltrans’ unwillingness to enter into serious dialogue about how to plan and construct an overpass in the area in the near term (two to five years).

Caltrans must come to the table with reasonable solutions quickly to enable Vintage to release El Campo from the litigation. At a minimum, Caltrans must immediately unbundle El Campo from Tower Road so Vintage’s litigation will no longer be applicable to El Campo, and El Campo’s safety changes can then be implemented immediately.

We hope and pray all will be quickly and cooperatively resolved in a matter of days, Caltrans willing, without any more deaths or injuries at these dangerous U.S. 101 crossings.

James Grant and his wife, Becky, have been advocating for improvements at the El Campo Road /Highway 101 intersection since the 2018 death of their son Jordan.

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