Quick Take:

Highway 1 will begin to look a bit different starting in April, with partial bus-on-shoulder lanes and exit-only auxiliary lanes set to break ground between 41st Avenue and Soquel Drive. Though the goal is to improve efficiency for Santa Cruz County car and bus commuters alike, some have raised concerns that the projects will bring little to no traffic improvement.

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Highway 1 commuters can soon expect to see some changes to the well-traveled road and probably have already noticed that crews have cut down a large number of trees.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission-led project includes new auxiliary lanes — lanes that connect highway on- and off-ramps, allowing vehicles more space to merge — between the 41st Avenue and Soquel Drive interchanges, the busiest stretch of Highway 1 in the county. Some of those auxiliary lanes will also do double duty as “bus-on-shoulder lanes,” which allow buses to use the auxiliary lanes to bypass traffic.

The change won’t be centered on just highway operations. A bicycle/pedestrian overcrossing starting at Chanticleer Avenue will run over Highway 1, providing an alternative route for cyclists and pedestrians who currently use the Soquel Drive or 41st Avenue overpasses. RTC spokesperson Shannon Munz said construction is slated to begin in April, having been delayed from its original late-January start time due to the storm deluge.

Munz told Lookout that the project would take about a year to complete, which means that Highway 1 regulars should expect some traffic disruptions. What exactly those delays might look like will be clearer as groundbreaking draws closer, said Munz.

Munz said the tree removal north of 41st Avenue is unavoidable, because the area is needed for the development. The RTC is set to replant nearly 500 trees, with some around the project corridor and more than 400 at Anna Jean Cummings County Park in Soquel. “I know it’s one of those things that people don’t like to see,” Munz said, “so when there’s tree removal for projects like this, we have to do mitigation.”

trees cut along Highway 1 between 41st Avenue and Soquel Avenue
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Some, though, are skeptical of the supposed benefits of the Highway 1 work.

Rick Longinotti, chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, said he believes the planned auxiliary lanes will do little to alleviate traffic on Highway 1. He points to the concept of “induced travel,” which argues that expanding roads because of high traffic only encourages more traffic, leading to comparable levels of congestion.

“It’d be a lot of construction on the highway, and it’s not going to reduce congestion according to the environmental impact report,” he said. “But they’ll say we’ll have to build another auxiliary lane. They’ll have a reason.”

The environmental impact report from Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration, certified in 2019, found that the auxiliary lanes would slightly worsen southbound traffic during evening rush hour but improve northbound traffic in the morning rush hour, and eliminate the bottleneck between Soquel Drive and 41st Avenue. It also found that lower traffic segments would see little to no improvement.

“Our most optimistic goal would be that they do this next auxiliary lane and find out it didn’t really help,” said Longinotti.

A rendering of the development plan at Highway 1 and 41st Avenue.
A rendering of the development plan at Highway 1 and 41st Avenue. The green marks the proposed auxiliary lanes, and the orange marks where the bus-on-shoulder sections begin and end. Credit: Via CDM Smith

He also takes issue with the proposed bus-on-shoulder developments. Despite their name, he said, they allow bus-exclusive lanes only in short sections near on- and off-ramps along Highway 1. Longinotti said there are no bus-on-shoulder lanes in the country defined this way. He argues that buses will remain stuck in traffic during peak periods if they are able to use only auxiliary lanes and instead supports the idea of dedicated bus lanes.

“It’s more sustainable and it’s a bus project, so I’m sure they would have no problem getting the OK to spend the money that way,” he said.

Munz said any one component will not fix the current traffic situation. But that is the reason for moving forward with non-highway projects, like the pedestrian/bicycle overpass, to get more people off of highways altogether, of which Longinotti approves. “There’s not just one fix for all of the traffic situations we have, but if we work on multimodal solutions, all of them can work together to alleviate this,” said Munz.

A rendering of the bicycle/pedestrian bridge to run from Chanticleer Avenue over Highway 1.
A rendering of the bicycle/pedestrian bridge to run from Chanticleer Avenue over Highway 1. Credit: Via Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission

Munz said the RTC is putting together an FAQ and additional information for the public regarding those concerns, including those raised by the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. She hopes to have them ready within the next week. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what this project is and what it’s going to do or not do,” she said.

Andy Schiffrin, former City of Santa Cruz planning commissioner, said all publicly funded projects require balancing competing visions for the county’s transportation system. He explained that 2016’s Measure D — a sales tax that provides a direct source of funding for transportation projects — signals a compromise among the various projects local agencies want to execute.

This one, funded in part by Measure D, is no exception. “I might not be crazy about some of these highway projects,” Schiffrin said, “but I support the compromise.”

A lot of support for these projects is based in South County, because residents who commute from there to points north have to use Highway 1 every day, he said: “From their point of view, even a small improvement is a big difference.”

Meanwhile, Schiffrin said, those living in the city of Santa Cruz, like him, could have a different perspective, since they might not have to travel long distances daily on the highway during rush hour.

Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...