By Carrie Spitler
Last Thursday, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission voted to request $40 million from the state to widen Highway 1 to six lanes.
The commission included city council members, county supervisors and members of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District Board. The $40 million were requested from the $4.5 billion transportation and infrastructure bond that was approved by state voters in November.
While all involved agree that traffic on the highway is too congested, county officials and residents have taken opposing sides on the course of action. One side has sought to find alternative ways to improve traffic, while the other sees the expansion as the only option to cut down on traffic.
Councilmember Mike Rotkin avidly opposes expansion because similar projects haven’t stopped congestion in other communities. A lane addition between Interstate 880 and Highway 17 near San Jose alleviated congestion initially, but it has only taken a few years for bumper to bumper traffic to return, he said.
"Seven years later when the construction is finally done [in Santa Cruz] there will only be a one percent improvement," Rotkin said. "There would be two to three years of good conditions, then you’d end up just where you started."
Opponents of the project would have preferred to postpone the vote until the end of the month when the Transportation Task Force will have a draft proposal laying out other ideas for reducing Highway 1 traffic.
Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly is skeptical about whether or not there is enough money to complete the project, and fears county-wide tax increases as a result. Mayor Reilly would also have liked to see the issue discussed more by the community to get a better sense of what the majority of people want.
"The way this was handled doesn’t honor the process," Reilly said. "It’s a decision that needs to involve all the community."
According to Jan Beautz, a member of the Board of Supervisors representing Live Oak and Soquel, the deadline to request funding from the state was last week, creating an urgency to vote on the issue. Beautz said that if they hadn’t requested the money from the state, their options to improve Highway 1 would have been very limited.
Beautz added that asking the state for the $40 million is the best available option to begin improving the highway’s congestion.
"About 100,000 people use the highway per day, and about 60,000 people a day go to San Jose. Highway 1 is the only highway, and it has also become our local roadway too," Beautz said.
Both Mayor Reilly and Councilmember Rotkin would like to see improvement of current highway conditions and an increased promotion of public transportation as alternatives to the six-lane expansion. Rotkin envisions special bus lanes, more vanpools and bike trailers, and metering lights on highway on-ramps.
However, Beautz believes metering lights would cause more problems than they would solve.
"Metering just backs all traffic from the highway onto the neighborhoods." Beautz said. "Public safety is an issue and the sheriff supports the auxiliary lanes because police are unable to get to accidents with all the congestion."