More than 140,000 vehicles take Highway 1 in Santa Cruz County every day. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
This morning thousands of drivers sat between the rolling, lush Santa Cruz Mountains and the glistening Pacific Ocean, only to ignore the natural beauty around them as they idled in gridlock traffic and stared at the cars in front of them, waiting for the crawl on Highway 1 to inch along.
One of them was Annabel Ortiz. Every morning, 28-year-old Ortiz drives from her home in Royal Oaks, on the outskirts of Watsonville, to her job 20 miles away on the Westside of Santa Cruz. On a good day, it takes her 45 to 50 minutes in her white 2000 Honda Accord. On a not-so-good day, it takes an hour and a half.
“I used to dread when I was starting to commute, because I had been living in Santa Cruz for two years,” Ortiz says. “I would get road rage every time traffic came to standstill. But I learned to accept it when there’s a lot of traffic.”
Some days, Ortiz spends two and a half hours commuting to and from North County Santa Cruz—burning not just gallons of gas, but an even more valuable resource, as well. Perhaps evangelical pastor Rick Warren, of all people, put it best: “You can make more money, but you can’t make more time.”
Sometimes Ortiz listens to National Public Radio to stay caught up on local news or pays her bills on her phone. “I try to be efficient,” she says.
Ortiz doesn’t realize it, but everyone is talking about her behind her back. South County politicians say it isn’t fair for the rest of the county to sit around and watch as hard-working people from their area move at a snail’s pace to work. Something needs to be done, they say, including widening the highway.
“I’m in favor of widening it. I view it as a very progressive issue,” says county supervisor Zach Friend, who serves on Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission board. “Some of the poorest people in the county live in my district in Watsonville. There aren’t very many jobs in Watsonville. A lot of people have to drive to Santa Cruz. If you’re making nine dollars an hour—right around minimum wage—and because of land-use and transportation decisions, you have to take an extra hour to get to work each day, it’s hard for me not to see that as a very progressive [issue]. These are the poorest among us. They’re making the least amount of money, and we’re adding two hours of transportation onto their day. How do you pay for a babysitter?”
Watsonville city councilmember Eduardo Montesino, another RTC commissioner, has raised the same concerns about working people who can barely afford to make the commute. So has Watsonville councilmember Daniel Dodge, an alternate for the RTC board.
More than 140,000 vehicles take Highway 1 every weekday, and it has what traffic engineers call a “Level of Service” grade of an “F.”
There’s no doubt that Santa Cruz County commutes are a problem. The questions are: How much difference would new lanes make, and at what cost would they come? One thing’s for sure: When it comes to transportation, nothing’s cheap.
A third lane in each direction will open on Highway 1 this summer and stretch for about a mile from Morrissey Boulevard to Soquel Avenue. Different from traditional “through lanes,” these are called auxiliary lanes—cheaper (relatively speaking) alternatives that don’t increase road capacity. They stretch from one on-ramp to the next off-ramp and don’t allow someone to sit on cruise control. Those two miles of pavement cost $20 million—$11 million of it construction costs—the funding for which came from state and federal sources.
Engineers aren’t positive how much auxiliary lanes reduce traffic, but the RTC hopes the new lane will reduce congestion of an existing lane by 50 percent. In this case, that would cut congestion a total of 25 percent.
RTC engineer Kim Schultz says that will speed up southbound traffic, by allowing drivers who want to exit onto Soquel Avenue to move out of the way sooner and get in the new lane. It’s a step toward improving one of the slowest-moving stretches of highway in the state.
Perils of HOV
At the same time, the RTC is doing an environmental review of plans to update the highway from Santa Cruz to San Andreas Road in Watsonville, including a plan to add long-awaited High Occupancy Vehicle lanes for buses and carpools. Those HOV lanes were once the dream of the RTC, but lately the situation doesn’t look so rosy.
HOV lanes don’t come cheap. The main cost: each interchange needs to be reconfigured in order to add a new through-lane. In essence, every on-ramp and off-ramp would have to be moved to make room for a new lane. According to RTC a best-case scenario, the total cost would come to $500 million. Not exactly music to supervisor John Leopold’s ears.
“It’s a half billion dollars. That should be sobering,” says Leopold, an RTC commissioner who has been vocal in his opposition to widening. “It would be the largest construction project in the history of the county.”
It’s worth mentioning that the RTC’s $500 million figure is from 2006. That HOV lane price tag would be an estimated $575 million in 2013 dollars, possibly a little less because the RTC has already funded auxiliary lanes to Soquel Avenue.
Still, the agency has started thinking about how it could pay for such a project. Every two years, it gets between $7 million and $11 million from the state of California to spend on transportation, at least some of which can be spent on things besides the highway like road repair. And every year, it gets about another $2 million from federal sources. Funding a transportation project of this scale on that kind of annual allowance seems next to impossible.
One solution is to increase sales tax with a new measure, conceivably a stronger one than the measure that failed in November 2006.
Based on a November 2011 staff report from RTC executive director George Dondero, it would probably take a measure to increase sales tax 25 years to raise $165 million. If combined with all state and federal funds, that’s only $213 million—still far short of $500-plus million needed to pay for carpool lanes. And this is assuming that things run on-schedule and on-budget from an agency that has still failed to produce an environmental impact report for the project. That document is seven years late.
What about auxiliary lanes then—the ones that don’t increase road capacity? According to that same Dondero report, auxiliary lanes would cost $210 million, $240 million today—although possibly less because the first stretch has been financed. The RTC is proceeding with plans to widen the next stretch of the highway from Soquel to 41st Avenue. But tax or no tax, according to the RTC’s numbers, the final six miles of auxiliary lanes beyond that look like a tough thing to count on anytime soon.
So how much do we know about what causes traffic congestion, and what fixes it? The theories vary.
Brian D. Taylor, a professor at UCLA, says traffic is a result of economic growth, not the cause of economic decline. He argues that we don’t have it nearly as bad as we think we do. Granted, this is coming from a guy who’s probably never tried to drive from Santa Cruz to Salinas at 4:30pm on a Friday, but traffic in West Los Angeles isn’t great, either—L.A. has the worst traffic in the nation. It still could be worse, he says.
The “economic and environmental tolls that congestion exacts in places like Bangkok, Jakarta and Lagos are undeniable,” Taylor wrote in 2002. “Mobility is far higher and congestion levels are far lower here in the U.S., even in our most crowded cities. That’s why, for now, we don’t see people and capital streaming out of San Francisco and Chicago heading for cities like Alturas, California and Peoria, Illinois.”
A 2009 study funded by Canada’s National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that adding lanes doesn’t reduce traffic much anyway. Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner, both professors from the University of Toronto, concluded that adding lanes doesn’t provide enough economic benefit to justify building costs, in their paper “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities.”
Caltrans Under Scrutiny
Seeking refuge from the blazing sun, two activists who spent years fighting highway widening in Santa Cruz sit under a patio umbrella at a Westside restaurant.
Peter and Celia Scott, who’ve been out of the limelight since losing a court case in 2011, just got back from a trip to Virginia to see Celia’s son. It’s a trip they don’t like making—despite their love for both him and the Blue Ridge Mountains—because of carbon that spews from jet engines.
Through their group the Campaign for Sensible Transportation, they sued Caltrans in 2009 to prevent the auxiliary lanes. Their argument: planners shouldn’t pave the first leg until the EIR for whole project is done. They say they didn’t appeal the decision, because they didn’t have the money.
But the Campaign for Sensible Transportation has other things on the horizon. Along with other organizations, it is part of a new coalition called Caltrans Watch.
“I’m really glad to see this statewide network form about transportation people being fed up with Caltrans road projects,” Scott says. “They’ll have a new website coming up that’s going to be called ‘Put the Brakes on Caltrans.’”
Sure enough, people all over the state are voicing frustration. State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who represents Concord, has called for a culture change at Caltrans and suggested more oversight in light of the agency botching repairs to the Oakland Bay Bridge by installing faulty screws.
And in Mendocino County, a $210 million plan to divert Highway 101 around the town of Willits and through the wilderness has angered locals, as well.
Peter and Celia, a former Santa Cruz mayor, say they’d rather see the money go to alternative transportation.
“You’re spending all this money on cars in the face of the threats of global warming,” Peter says. “You should be spending money on sidewalks and bikes.”
Federal transportation dollars have a lot of flexibility. But when it comes to state transportation dollars, RTC spokesperson Karena Pushnik says that’s easier said than done. Pushnik says the funds, which are administered by Caltrans and the state’s Transportation Commission, have to be used on regional projects like the highway and rail line, and generally aren’t approved for other transportation projects.
“The focus has been primarily on highway projects at the state level,” Pushnik says.
The last time the RTC held a vote for its projects, it ended in a wreck. Their ballot item, Measure J, to increase sales tax half a cent, needed a two-thirds majority vote in 2004. It got 43 percent.
Measure J was in 2004, and Pushnik notes there was no exit poll. She says voters might have voted “no” because they found the measure confusing. The RTC didn’t do any exit polls, and there were bike and pedestrian projects on the list, too.
“People have selective memory and think it was all about the highway,” Pushnik says. “Well, the highway was a big chunk of it, but there were all kinds of other projects.”
Maybe so. But 63 percent of that sales tax measure was slated for the highway. The Dondero report from 2011 says in order for a sales tax measure to pass, the ideal percentage of funds going to the highway would be half that, about 30 percent. That’s part of what will make it hard to raise funds for HOV lanes, according to RTC estimates. The other 70 percent would have to go to local roads, buses, rail and bike projects.
Santa Cruzans are some of the 15 percent of Californians who don’t live in “self-help counties” or counties with a tax for local roads.
RTC engineer Schultz notes that counties often don’t pass voter-approved transportation measures on the first try, citing Los Angeles, San Bernadino and Riverside as examples.
Perhaps the prospects for such a sales tax would improve as the economy does. But former RTC commissioner Mark Stone, now a state senator, said in 2011 he couldn’t picture Santa Cruz ever passing a sales tax measure for transportation.
After the collapse of Measure J, county treasurer Fred Keeley facilitated a Transportation Funding Task Force from 2005 to 2006 with community members from all across the political spectrum. With Keeley leading discussions, the group tried to stitch together a ballot measure that would garner two-thirds majority support.
“The biggest area of disagreement was whether or not to widen Highway 1 and if it were to be widened, what that would look like,” Keeley says.
“Generally speaking, the opposition for the highway changes came from the Campaign for Sensible Transportation folks, and some folks in the city of Santa Cruz,” Keeley said, adding that money for highway and rail improvements benefited people up and down the coast, but that still left people out. “Where is the compelling argument for anyone who lives north of the fishhook? Where is the incentive for anyone who lives in the San Lorenzo Valley or Scotts Valley, purely from self-interest?”
In 2004, Measure J came closest to passing in Watsonville with 54 percent, still well shy of two-thirds. Nowhere did the measure fare worse than in the City of Santa Cruz, where it got 35 percent.
Moving It Along
Annabel Ortiz agrees with commissioner Friend that highway widening is a progressive issue, because she says it affects working people from all walks of life. Ortiz works as a programs manager for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). She lives with her parents, because she can’t afford rent in Santa Cruz County.
It would be unfair to categorize the discussion over the highway as an arm wrestle between highway lanes and bike projects. As part of the RTC’s environmental document, it is also studying a variety of options, including ramp metering—a plan to put stoplights at on-ramps to better control the flow of traffic.
The issue will no doubt be divisive for years to come, but Scott of the Campaign for Sensible Transportation says there is room for dialogue, and negotiation. That may be the only way to make any real progress on Santa Cruz County’s traffic issues.
“I often enjoy the opportunity to talk with people I don’t agree with,” Scott says. “Not so much if their ideology is so frozen they can’t communicate. I could never talk to Ted Cruz of Texas or Paul Ryan or Tea Party folks. But our local politicians—every person is complex. Maybe there are opportunities for commonality we can get to. It’s often interesting to see other people’s point of view, and where they’re coming from. You live in the same community with these people, you’ve got to get along with them.”