The driveway and garage of Paul Elerick’s Aptos house is home to four cars, two of them classics—a 1950 Ford and a 1954 Mercury. Both are vibrant red and were on the road before the 79-year-old Elerick even knew how to drive. They seem like an odd fit for a onetime skeptic of highway widening, who helped start the Campaign for Sensible Transportation over a decade ago.
He was never “the anti-car guy,” though, he explains. The crusade against highway widening was never about automobiles, he says, but instead about preventing a boom in growth to the community.
“We weren’t too hot about seeing an eight-lane freeway all the way to Watsonville, but that wasn’t necessarily because of the cars. It was because of the growth. And a lot of people agreed with us,” Elerick says. “But it’s a different ballgame now.”
Elerick, who helped defeat a ballot measure to widen the highway 12 years ago, resigned as co-chair for the Campaign for Sensible Transportation a few months ago to endorse the latest measure from the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). Since stepping down, Elerick has been butting heads with fellow transportation activists and old friends about a possible sales tax measure, which would widen Highway 1 while also putting tens of millions of dollars into local roads, public transportation and bike and pedestrian projects.
The first transportation measure, which hit ballots in 2004, was a half-cent sales tax plan that would have spent nearly two-thirds of its cash on widening the highway with expensive carpool lanes. A newer plan, which the RTC board is expected to approve this month, would put a half-cent sales tax that spends just 25 percent of its money on Highway 1, if voters approve it by a two-thirds vote come November. Engineers would build merge lanes that run from onramp to offramp, a smaller-scale plan that’s cheaper, although also less effective than carpool lanes in reducing traffic congestion.
The plan would also fix local roads, pay for rail corridor improvements, fund the Rail Trail network and help the ailing METRO bus system. The plan has been comprehensive enough to gain the support of major environmental organizations like Ecology Action. Still, a small group of activists has launched letter-writing campaigns and flooded public meetings to express their disdain for the measure, which they say will have an impact on climate change unless RTC boardmembers take highway widening off the measure.
Elerick says that would be enough to kill it. He feels that the Campaign for Sensible Transportation has been hijacked by single-issue environmentalists who ignore the county’s serious transportation problems and only care about global warming. “I know all about that, so let’s talk about something else,” he says. “Let’s talk about getting people home from work. And I really think there’s so many good things in that ballot measure—so many good things.”
Jack Nelson, one of the co-chairs for the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, tells GT he always appreciates hearing other people’s viewpoints, Elerick’s included. “My personal preference is to stick to policy and not make it a personality issue. He’s entitled to change his view,” Nelson says. “I respect his opinion.”
Nelson helped bring Susan Handy, a transportation expert from UC Davis, to Santa Cruz for a discussion in April. Environmental documents for the new highway changes cite Handy’s work from 2003, arguing that new lanes on the freeway would not convince more people to travel. But Handy has since indicated it’s more complicated. New lanes, she has said, could actually put more cars on the road in the long-term, creating as much congestion as ever. “We’re trying to shed light, actual research, on transportation policy,” Nelson says.
Nelson has found other possible flaws in the documents—namely that the projected greenhouse gas emissions appear to be off by a factor of a couple of hundred, as GT reported in February. (Caltrans won’t comment on the documents while they are in review.) Nelson and other activists point out that there are differences between what was studied in the environmental documents and what the RTC is proposing, and they would like to see metering and traffic lights at on ramps considered.
When the Santa Cruz City Council voted 6-1 in support of the measure, Councilmember Micah Posner, a longtime transportation activist voiced similar concerns.
“I lost sleep over this one,” Posner said at the meeting, turning away from his colleagues and looking toward the Community TV camera. “I respect [Councilmember] Don Lane a lot and [County Supervisor] John Leopold, who helped put it together, and I definitely am saying that this proposal is a heck of a lot better than the one we beat before. But I can’t support something that’s based on a false pretense, and widening the highway will not work.”
Many South County leaders, though, like District 2 County Supervisor Zach Friend, have for years called highway improvements a working people’s issue. Many low-income people drive from the southern end of the county up Highway 1 to their jobs in Santa Cruz. Even a small improvement makes a big difference, Friend says, and he isn’t buying the argument that highway widening won’t be effective enough, since activists already halted the carpool lane plan, which was slated to create more congestion relief.
Last December at an RTC meeting, Friend compared fanatic transportation advocates to national politicians “at least of a specific political party”—meaning Republicans—who support cutting taxes to the point where they can’t fund any federal programs. “And then those federal programs don’t work, and then people say, ‘Well, those federal programs don’t work. We should shut them down.’ It’s a pretty interesting argument,” Friend said at the meeting. “It’s brilliant, actually, politically. But there are real people who are really impacted by these decisions that we make.”
As county roads lie in a state of disrepair, local leaders have already started worrying about the future, well past November, when the possible measure would hit the ballot.
At the Pasatiempo Inn, former Republican state lawmaker Tom Campbell spoke last month to a room with a mix of nonprofit executives, local leaders and reporters. After speaking about the upcoming election cycle, Campbell fielded questions at the event, which was hosted by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce.
As the inquiries dwindled, George Dondero, executive director of the RTC, raised his hand to thank Campbell for saying earlier in the afternoon that more counties should fund transportation with local taxes, but the longtime transportation expert worried even that might not be enough.
“Even if we’re successful here, it’s just going to be a start, and throughout my career, it’s been frustrating to hear both the federal and state level retreat from infrastructure in general, not just transportation. Do you have any optimism about that trend changing, because it doesn’t seem to be getting any better?” Dondero asked.
“No, I do not,” Campbell said. A couple of seconds later, the crowd began chuckling. Dondero, stunned for a second, gazed around the dining room as it filled with grim, pessimistic snickering. Then, he shrugged, leaned back in his seat and laughed.
Update 6/8/16: GT originally reported that Bike Santa Cruz County has endorsed a possible ballot measure from the Regional Transportation Commission. Bike Santa Cruz County has not made an endorsement, although director Amelia Conlen has spoken positively about aspects of it. We regret the error.