Highway 1 widening hits speedbump even as construction set to begin on new segment
by Jack Nelson
Widening Highway 1 to eight lanes in Santa Cruz County from Hwy. 17 to beyond Aptos has long been the highest priority for the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, the body that parcels out the state and federal transportation money for the County. Budget realities and pressure to focus on other needs such as fixing local roads may cause a reshaping of priorities.
In November, Commission staff reported that the $500 million needed to complete the widening would not be available over the next 25 years under "even the most optimistic projections for future revenues." Not even with an assumed new transportation-dedicated half cent sales tax.
The same report provided a scaled-down scenario of gradually adding exit-to-exit "auxiliary lanes" on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Rio Del Mar, costing some $177 million, to be built in phases over 25 years, still relying on the more optimistic revenue projections.
This is essentially the tack the RTC has been pursuing, first with the Fishhook added lanes and then the Soquel Avenue/Drive to Morrissey section which could begin construction as early as this winter. The $23 million Soquel to Morrissey section is funded and has gone out to bid. The RTC hopes to award a construction contract in time for tree trimming or removal to be conducted ahead of a February 15 deadline that protects nesting birds. An environmental lawsuit by the local Campaign for Sensible Transportation was unsuccessful in stopping this expansion of the highway. The lawsuit was supported by both the Sierra Club and People Power.
Although the Soquel/Morrissey Aux Lanes project design includes costly additional lane width capacity for the proposed future HOV through-lanes, the EIR for the proposed larger HOV Lanes Project has yet to be completed. The eight lanes width capacity requires extensive earthwork at existing slopes and removal of existing mature trees along the highway. Huge new retaining walls and sound walls will be built, and the existing La Fonda Avenue overcrossing will be demolished and replaced with a much longer bridge.
Grading for this one-mile project includes 35,600 cubic yards of roadway excavation, 3,800 cubic yards of embankment fill, and several thousand truck loads of dirt and debris to be hauled somewhere else. Highway 1 on the east side of Santa Cruz will never look the same once this tree cutting and heavy grading work is begun.
The one-mile project has been promoted as providing congestion relief, but the environmental study made the questionable assumption that no new trips would be generated by the new lane capacity. The study also concluded that greenhouse gas emissions would not be increased because of anticipated fuel-efficient travel speeds in the opening year. Yet a potential resumption of congestion on this segment of highway and adjacent streets on a larger scale that may take shape in near-future years and produce greater pollution was not examined in the study, despite widely reported evidence from other congested freeway expansions in California.
The traffic study for the Aux Lanes project shows that on completion, new peak-period traffic bottlenecks will form downstream of the project in both directions, as previously confirmed to this reporter by Sam Toh, Caltrans traffic engineer for the project. In effect, for $23 million, Highway 1 congestion may only be moved one mile down the road, while reinforcing dependency on automobiles and doing little to promote greener transportation alternatives.
On December 1, the Regional Transportation Commission voted to commit another $4 million of our tax money toward a new $27 million phase of widening Highway 1. The new segment, which would build auxiliary lanes from the Soquel Ave./Drive exit to 41st Avenue, demonstrates that widening Highway 1 remains more important to the RTC than repairing local roads, making storm damage repairs or building infrastructure for sustainable transportation.
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