A horrific car collision along Cayuga Street in the early morning of March 27 that left one person dead and another critically injured is sad but not shocking, according to neighborhood residents.
Just days before the crash, Cayuga resident Rafael Jara Simkin gathered two dozen neighbors in her front yard to meet with Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner and Lt. Wes Morey—of the Traffic Division for Santa Cruz Police—to express “concerns about how dangerous the road is and our frustrations from decades of neighbors trying to fight for change from the city.”
The SCPD says a 38-year-old driver was traveling at a “high rate of speed” around 5:45am when he lost control of his vehicle and wrapped it around a utility pole at the intersection of Cayuga and Effey streets. He remains in critical condition. The Santa Cruz County coroner’s office identified the 48-year-old passenger who was killed in the collision as Mike Toledo.
The crash is part of an ongoing investigation in which police say they have reason to believe the driver was intoxicated.
“After speaking with an independent witness and looking at door cam videos in the area we are looking into the possibility another vehicle was involved,” explains Lt. Morey, adding the vehicles might have been racing.
While not designated as a main traffic artery, motorists often use Cayuga as a cut through from Soquel Avenue to Seabright State Beach. It runs parallel to Seabright Avenue, but lacks many of the speed-inhibiting features of that road. Morey says Cayuga is wider than other residential roadways around Santa Cruz because of a trolley line dating back to the 1800s that is now paved over.
“There’s tons of kids in the neighborhood,” says longtime Cayuga and Seabright neighborhood resident Tawn Kennedy. No stranger to motor collisions along Cayuga, his wife’s car was hit in 2015 at the Windham Street intersection.
“She was in the intersection and someone, presumably, blew through the stop sign,” he remembers, saying her car was totaled and she suffered injuries.
A new parent himself, Kennedy highlights that the recent fatal crash occurred within a block of Gault Elementary School and the Honalee Children’s Center, a family home child care program.
Kennedy is also co-chair of the Community Traffic Safety Coalition (CTSC) organized by the County Health Services Agency. The CTSC has been instrumental in embracing a Vision Zero Task Force. First adopted in Sweden in the 1990s, Vision Zero is a strategy jurisdictions implement in hopes of eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries.
Kennedy says while Cayuga has always been problematic, fatal car crashes are part of a growing trend on the national level.
“We’ve seen a crazy spike in traffic-related deaths between 2020 and 2021, even with the dip in people driving during the pandemic,” he says, citing a National Safety Council report showing 2021 motor vehicle deaths were 19% higher nationwide than in 2019.
Neighbors say they’ve vocalized their concerns about Cayuga for over two decades.
“It was 11 o’clock at night. I was watching Jurassic Park and I thought it was my new subwoofer,” recollects Cayuga resident Rolf Pot. “But my girlfriend said, ‘That wasn’t a subwoofer, that was something outside.’”
On the night of Sept. 22, 2001, Pot was one of the first people on the scene when an intoxicated driver ran a stop sign at the intersection of Windsor and Cayuga, striking a minivan and killing Amanda Wagner, 16, and her 14-year-old sister, Carrie Wagner.
“That’s when I got involved,” Pot says.
At the time, he gathered over 200 signatures from local residents petitioning the city to make traffic changes along the corridor. Everything from three roundabouts on Cayuga to traffic diverters that would cause vehicles to slow down and take other side streets were discussed. Pot tells GT a three-month trial diverter plan was approved, but the momentum for the changes slowed with city officials citing budgetary concerns.
“By December  they said the budget ran out,” he remembers. “There was no willingness on the part of the technical staff.”
In November of 2015, Kyle Pape, a 25-year-old Whole Foods employee, was struck and killed in a pedestrian crosswalk at Cayuga Street and Soquel Avenue.
“The [March 27] fatal car crash is so devastating and has accelerated the push from neighbors and public safety concerns,” Mayor Sonja Brunner wrote in an email to GT. “This is a public safety priority.”
After Sunday’s collision, the mayor met with Morey and city engineers, along with the Public Works Department, to explore short-term and long-term solutions.
Nathan Nguyen, the assistant director of the Public Works Department and a city engineer, says a project for Cayuga is included in Santa Cruz’s Active Transportation Plan (ATP), a document that identifies projects and initiatives to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety.
“The initial concept is to either install bike lanes, or turn that street into a neighborhood greenway,” he says.
In turning a street into a neighborhood greenway, jurisdictions make structural changes to prioritize pedestrians. Solutions previously mentioned such as diverters and roundabouts, along with enhanced lane striping and beautification medians with trees or plants, have all been shown to be effective in large cities such as Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. In states like Hawaii and Virginia, along with countries such as the United Kingdom, zig-zag traffic lines have statistically proven effective in slowing traffic.
Nguyen says the city’s plan has more than 250 active transportation projects.
“The city has recently applied for a Caltrans grant to revise the ATP,” he says. “Since 2016, we feel there has been a lot more public involvement and sentiment in regards to equity and health. So we want to take a fresh look at the plan because, while fairly recent, it is six years old at this point.”
According to the ATP, the estimated cost for bike lane installation along Cayuga from Soquel Avenue to Hiawatha Avenue will be anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. Nguyen says it could end up costing up to $200,000.
Since its 2017 adoption, the city has completed a variety of projects within the ATP. That includes the first phase of the Rail Trail segment from Natural Bridges to Pacific Avenue and the installation of Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFB) at 35 intersections.
In March 2021, the city was awarded two additional Highway Safety Improvement Program grants, totalling $1.5 million, to be used on improving citywide traffic signals and pedestrian crossings by 2023.
“We are using part of that to install an additional five RRFBs throughout the city,” Nguyen says.
As for the Vision Zero plan, he says the pandemic and low staffing levels have delayed the project. The city has been without a transportation manager and two programs managers, but it is working on getting staffing levels back to pre-pandemic numbers.
“As we get these critical roles filled, hopefully by later this year, the plan is to start moving forward with Vision Zero,” he says.
Despite not being fully staffed, the city has moved forward with parts of Vision Zero like the Local Roadway Safety Program (LRSP) which contains an analysis of citywide collision corridors. Cayuga Street was not named among the most frequent collision corridors; however, multiple Broadway Street intersections—including one that intersects with Cayuga a block away from the site of the March 27 crash—were named. The LRSP found that between 2015 and 2019 there were 2,496 reported collisions, and rates of aggressive, distracted and impaired driving were all on the rise. The data also shows 90% of collisions in Santa Cruz occurred at or within 250 feet from an intersection.
While Cayuga Street neighbors know large traffic alterations will take several months to design, let alone complete, Kennedy says that there are smaller but effective initiatives that the city could undertake in the meantime. He points to studies that show painted intersections, like Portland’s neighborhood street murals, calm traffic while also having the added benefits of building and beautifying the community.
“They slow people down and remind drivers it’s a neighborhood, not a thoroughfare to get from point A to B,” he says.
Jara Simkin says that the neighborhood is encouraged by how receptive mayor Bruner has been to their concerns, even before the crash.
“But I and other residents fear [the city] will offer the most minimal solution that won’t make a huge difference. Painting a single line down this massively wide street won’t stop people drag racing down it. There needs to be a comprehensive, physical restructuring of the street. It’s way too big,” Jara Simkin says.