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Caltrans needs to step up

A response to Vintage Wine Estates' lawsuit blocking safety improvements at El Campo Road and Highway 101



A lawsuit filed by a winery company put on hold the El Campo Road and Highway 101 safety improvements that were supposed to start today, May 13. It came as an unexpected and crushing disappointment to us. Vintage Wine Estates, the new parent company of Laetitia Winery, filed the lawsuit last week, blocking the construction of the safety improvements at El Campo, Tower Road (Laetitia's entrance), and two other crossings on 101.

Since our son, Cal Poly freshman Jordan Grant, was killed at the El Campo intersection on Oct. 7, 2018, when Richard Giuli made an unsafe left hand turn across 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, and two other crossings, as Caltrans believes any partial closure at El Campo needs to be replicated at Tower to avoid a different unsafe road condition arising—U-turns on 101 at Tower Road.

Jordan's accident happened seven weeks after Suzie Smith's Lexus was hit there in 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 similar accidents. That is why we take any delay, even a few weeks, caused by the Vintage v. 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 to try to maintain wine tasting traffic (even though, with the expected changes, customers would still have had access to the winery. Some would just have to drive a little farther). So they intentionally chose to delay the safety improvements at El Campo as a consequence of their decision to litigate.

Vintage is gambling that it can quickly negotiate a better outcome with Caltrans for its Tower Road access and protect the profits from wine tasting traffic making left turns into the winery from southbound 101. But to do so, they have taken "hostage" 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's or daughter's life on 101? Gamble with your wife's or husband's life? Would you agree to that? We do not. That is not a reasonable and responsible exchange: potentially losing someone's life to protect 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 have been 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 for Jordan's life.

Over the last 48 hours, I have been working with Pat Roney,Vintage Wine Estates' 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 midterm goal—to build a desperately needed underpass/overpass in this area within five years to meet a range of community needs, as well as Laetitia Winery's access needs.

Vintage cannot be held responsible for what the previous owners of Laetitia did in 2011. At that time, Laetitia threatened a lawsuit to prevent these same safety changes being made to Tower and El Campo roads—changes that were designed, funded, and prescribed by Caltrans engineers as necessary corrections to unsafe road conditions. Laetitia's former owners were successful, allowing the injuries and deaths that followed, leading up to Suzie's accident and our cherished son Jordan being killed. That was neither reasonable nor responsible. The hands of the previous owners of Laetitia are not clean in this sacrifice of public safety, of Jordan's life, for their wine tasting traffic profits.

However, I also believe that this is not what Vintage Wine Estates, the current owner, is. While we have disagreed about the lawsuit just filed, Vintage has also 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 from Caltrans for an under/overpass in the next two to five years. I respect and agree with them for the work they are doing to help achieve the goal of getting an overpass built in the next five years.

What role has Caltrans played in getting to this point? Caltrans failed to fix these crossings in 2011 when it had the funding. 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 San Luis Obispo Council of Governments staff included a J-curve in its Dec. 5, 2018, PowerPoint presentation. Caltrans refused to listen to the new owner of Laetitia, leaving Vintage Estates to believe that it had no other option but to sue to be heard. 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.

While valuing and respecting the relationship that we're building with Vintage executives, those of us who want public safety to be put first will continue to oppose the delay caused by the litigation. Caltrans and Vintage need to resolve this quickly. Given what Vintage has told us, we have moderated many of our proposed activities, pending the results of upcoming meetings 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 the agency's unwillingness to enter into serious dialogue about how to plan and construct an overpass in the near term. Caltrans must come to the table with reasonable solutions quickly. 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 that all will be quickly and cooperatively resolved in a matter of days, Caltrans willing, without any more deaths and injuries at these dangerous crossings. Δ

James Grant is Jordan Grant's father. Send comments through the editor at [email protected] or write a letter to the editor for publication and email it to [email protected].

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