.Stop and Go

Where does the Highway 1 expansion project stand?

Commuters will be cruising new lanes on Highway 1 between Morrissey Boulevard and Soquel Avenue by mid-April, according to Bruce Shewchuk, the resident engineer overseeing the project for the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). However, the freeway will not be three lanes in each direction until August.

“There may be some landscaping to be completed,” says Shewchuk. “But the [La Fonda] bridge will be open and all the lanes useable by late summer.”

In April, traffic will be diverted to what is now the right lane and the new outer auxiliary lane. The dividers in the center will be placed wider for demolition of the La Fonda Bridge’s center column. The construction of the new bridge—which will be built wide enough for bike lanes and sidewalks to share with cars—will occur over the next three and a half months, says Shewchuk.

The freeway will be closed one direction at a time for a few nights during this period in order to rebuild the bridge.

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“The auxiliary lanes are intended to let drivers through quickly that are just jumping on and off,” says Regional Transportation Commission Senior Planner Karena Pushnik. “This will keep the flow for people on longer drives moving smoother.”

The auxiliary lanes aim to also spare neighborhoods around Morrissey Boulevard from the daily flood of drivers who now escape onto surface streets before the freeway shrinks from three lanes at the Highway 17/1 merge to two lanes. It can take several minutes just to get through the stop sign at Fairmount Avenue to achieve this evasive maneuver, leaving drivers at the mercy of a stop light about 100 feet ahead.

“Improvements to Highway 1 are a good idea because then people will stay on the freeway,” says Pushnik. “That will leave the neighborhoods to the bikers and pedestrians.”

This section of auxiliary lanes is all part of a proposed High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane plan that would eventually add a third lane in each direction all the way through Aptos. The total cost is unknown at this time and there is no set timeline yet for adding lanes south of the Soquel Drive exit, according to Pushnik.

“We will be finishing that environmental review sometime next year,” she says. “Then we have to look for funding and don’t know where it will come from at this time.”

With that review in hand they could begin building auxiliary lanes to connect the Soquel/Morrissey auxiliary lanes being built now to the existing set between 41st Avenue and Porter/Bay off-ramps once funding sources are secured.

She says the Soquel/Morrissey project is an 18-month undertaking that is coming in on schedule, and that the longer project through Aptos is a separate affair rather than two pieces of the same goal. GT asked her and Shewchuk what they thought about a comparison to a similar High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV or carpool) lane project being done on Highway 405 in Los Angeles County.

In that scenario, a 10-mile carpool lane installation is on track to be finished in four years and is being treated as a one-shot deal. Granted, the bill for that construction was expected to cost $1 billion and has reportedly gone over budget “by an undisclosed amount,” according to a Feb. 22 piece on la.curbed.com.

The bill for additional lanes from Highway 17 to Soquel totals $70 million so far and the project has taken seven years. This includes four years between the completion of the Highway 17 merge section and the start of the work being done now.

“The advantage to this approach is that it is cheaper,” says Pushnik.

Although it is easier to keep an eye on costs, the timelines can get very murky. From the start of adding lanes to the bottom of Highway 17 in 2006-7, she says a 2026 date for third lanes through Aptos is not necessarily out of the question.

The key difference between the 405 project in Los Angeles and the local situation appears to be funding. Los Angeles raised about $200 million locally through a variety of taxes, and received $189.9 million in federal stimulus funds in 2009, as well as $127 million in other federal funds, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles’ ability to get so many federal funds and expedite this large endeavor—including 18 miles of sound wall, new overpasses, and 10 miles of carpool lanes—was in part due to good timing and luck, as well as local funds. The federal government was drawn to the project because it had enough planning and reviews completed to be considered “shovel ready.” A press release on Metro.net says the project was expected to create 18,000 jobs, including workers and administration for the construction, as well as from the benefits of making commuting and shipping more efficient.

In Santa Cruz, the entire $20 million for the Soquel/Morrissey construction came from California’s Corridor Mobility Improvement Account (CMIA), which is administered by the California Transportation Commission. The crew consists of 10 to 20 people on any given day.

Highway 17 commuters have expressed concern to the RTC that the local piecemeal method of lane additions is just pushing the bottleneck a bit down the road, says Pushnik. However, she argues that many Highway 17 commuters live on the Westside and nearby areas, and will be exiting before the Soquel Drive exit, which will be the new screeching halt each afternoon once the current project is done.

The debate over whether widening Highway 1 is a good idea in the first place is older than most college students.

According to The Campaign for Sensible Transportation website, “the most heavily traveled section of the road has been operating at capacity during peak hours since the late 1980s.”

Some residents began pushing for more lanes then, because many were already commuting over the hill to jobs that paid more than those they could find in Santa Cruz.

By the late 1990s, several plans to improve the south end of Highway 17 had been presented and then rejected by the city council for aesthetic reasons and fears that Santa Cruz would become a larger community more homogenous with the Bay Area, according to Jeff Waller, who has chronicled the history of roadway politics extensively at we.got.net/~mapman/streets/SantaCruz.

“Through the 1980s and 1990s, the widening was fiercely debated, but no action was ever taken,” Waller writes. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the proposal gained new life in the form of HOT (High-Occupancy/Toll) or HOV (High-Occupancy Vehicle) lanes.”

This atmosphere prompted the RTC to take on management, which is not usually the case for freeway projects.

“The RTC is managing this project instead of CalTrans even though they own the freeway,” Pushnik says. “This gives us the chance to communicate more closely with residents than they could and make sure we can do all we can to accommodate their needs.”

In the process, the RTC is working to provide small touches, such as shuttles to make trips to school for Harbor High and Delaveaga Elementary students easier in light of the missing La Fonda Bridge. Pro-bicycle group People Power, although opposed to the highway widening, has helped the RTC map out bicycle routes to these schools to help students cope with the temporary absence of the La Fonda route.

They opposed expanding Highway 1 whether the added pavement was called an HOV lane or simply a wider freeway. One member stood outside of a planning meeting in 2012 burning fake money to show her disapproval. With construction now unstoppable, they hope their sustainable transportation ideas are included in the reviews leading up to the longer stretch going down through Aptos. These include widening bike lanes on the frontage roads as well providing more spots to cross the freeway without hopping into a car.

“We are really looking forward to the completion of the Aptos highway Environmental Impact Review,” say People Power Director Amelia Conlen. “That’s the next step to getting the Mar Vista bike-pedestrian bridge [near Cabrillo College] which has been promised since the ’60s completed. There’s also a proposed Chanticleer pedestrian bridge [in Live Oak] that we hope will be part of that part of the freeway widening.”


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