State commission poised to reject $25 million funding request for future Highway 1 upgrade

A view of Highway 1 from a railroad overcrossing in Aptos
A stretch of Highway 1 between State Park Drive and Rio Del Mar Boulevard in Aptos in a January 2022 phot.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Last week, California transportation officials recommended against $25 million in funding for Phase 3 of the Highway 1 expansion project that was expected to break ground in 2025, part of the $83 million still needed for the project. The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission is moving forward with the environmental review and design phase, and the California Transportation Commission will meet again at the end of June to make a final decision.

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Staff with the California Transportation Commission (CTC) are recommending that the state agency reject a request to fund part of the Highway 1 expansion project in Santa Cruz County. Local officials say the decision could delay the start of the project, but are hopeful the funding will eventually be approved.

In a release posted on the commission’s website Thursday, CTC staff recommended against funding a request by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) for Phase 3 of the Highway 1 expansion project. Phase 3 involves adding auxiliary lanes — which connect highway on- and off-ramps, allowing vehicles additional merging space — on both sides of the highway between State Park Drive and Freedom Boulevard in Aptos. It also includes widening the bridge over Aptos Creek and Spreckels Drive, and the construction of the 1.25-mile-long Segment 12 of the Coastal Rail Trail between State Park Drive and Rio Del Mar Boulevard.

Phase 3 is part of a larger project that involves Soquel Drive multimodal upgrades in an effort to decrease congestion along Highway 1 while making roads more efficient for public transportation.

Though the CTC has not officially denied the project funding, RTC spokesperson Shannon Munz said the state agency very often follows the recommendations of its staff. The CTC will convene at the end of June to consider the staff recommendations.

The CTC did not offer a reason why its staff favors rejecting the funding request and did not respond to Lookout’s requests for comment about it Friday. The project was expected to break ground in 2025.

A map of the entire Watsonville-Santa Cruz Multimodal Corridor Program. CTC staff recommended against funding Contract 1.
(Via Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

The $180 million Phase 3 is already partially funded. Measure D — a half-cent county sales tax designed to generate a steady source of local funding for transportation projects that voters passed in 2016 — is providing $70.3 million. Another $26.7 million comes from a variety of other sources including the National Infrastructure Project Assistance program, a competitive grant program that supports multimodal, multijurisdictional projects of regional or national significance. That leaves $83 million still needed for Phase 3. The CTC grant request was for $25 million.

Munz said that RTC staff is continuing to work on the project. That includes wrapping up the environmental impact phase and moving into the design phase, when its engineering team determines how to best build the project and creates the blueprints. That will involve public input on aesthetics and the use of public spaces in the project’s plan.

If the state denies the funding request, Munz said the RTC would reapply for funding at its earliest opportunity, which isn’t until 2025. That would keep project delays “minimal,” she said.

The regional transportation agency still plans to have the project ready to start construction by 2025, she added. “The project still has a couple more years of work to be done on it,” said Munz. “Our staff is going to keep moving forward on this project so that it is ready in 2025 so that, if funded, it could be ready for construction immediately.”

But Rick Longinotti, chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, sees the likely funding rejection as a sign that the RTC should reconsider the Phase 3 project.

Longinotti has consistently criticized the Highway 1 expansion project, which he says will do little to alleviate Highway 1 traffic. He believes that the auxiliary lane project should have been excluded from the project’s scope.

“The RTC could submit the same proposal two years from now, but I don’t predict that would have any chance of success,” he said. “I think [CTC staff] is probably turned off to a grant application that’s trying to pull the wool over their eyes and claim this is actually something good for transit.”

Longinotti added that he views some of the other project components as positive, like traffic signals that give priority to public buses, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps at intersections and protected bike lanes on Soquel Drive as more worthwhile undertakings. He also said that his organization would like to see full bus-on-shoulder lanes, rather than the current plan for the bus-exclusive lanes only in short sections near on- and off-ramps.

Longinotti said he hopes the RTC looks into congestion pricing, like FasTrak lanes in the Bay Area: “The point is, if there were congestion pricing on that strip, then buses could go the length of Soquel Drive without getting caught in spillover traffic from Highway 1 and make much better time.”

The CTC will meet again on June 28 and 29 to make a final decision on staff recommendations.


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