Local motorists will soon face a disruptive rehabilitation project on the Murray Street Bridge. The overhaul includes seismic upgrades and widening and, officials say, is a safety issue. But construction on the bridge that spans the harbor and connects Twin Lakes and beyond to downtown Santa Cruz is sure to be a headache.
Every summer in Santa Cruz, traffic on busy beach streets slows to a sluggish pace, with cars percolating through neighborhoods like molasses through a kitchen strainer.
And come spring 2023, traffic near the Santa Cruz Harbor might grind to a halt altogether. That’s when the city of Santa Cruz is scheduled to break ground on a 30-month project to upgrade the Murray Street Bridge that spans the harbor.
To Laurie Negro, who owns Betty Burgers at the nearby intersection of Murray and Seabright Avenue, all of this begs a pressing question.
“This has been 20 years in the making. Why on earth would you start it in the summer?” she asked.
Discussions around the Murray Street Bridge overhaul, which will include seismic improvements and widening, first began in the late 1990s.
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During the planned 30-month construction, the bridge will sometimes close down completely, sometimes close to one-way-only traffic, and sometimes be open both ways. No one knows yet how often the bridge will be open, but Santa Cruz Senior Civil Engineer Joshua Spangrud said the intention is to keep the bridge open for at least one-way traffic as often as possible.
Negro said she hopes the city is proactive about doing outreach about which lanes will close and when. Negro, who says that the city has never reached out to her about the project, has employees and customers living on both sides of the bridge.
At this point, with some details unknown, the impacts of the project are difficult to grasp. But it’s already become a discussion point for management at Aldo’s Harborside Restaurant.
“The short answer is we talk about it all the time, and it’s like, ‘Dun, dun, dun, duuun!’” said Aldo’s manager Amy Di Chiro, imitating the dramatic tones of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “But we don’t know. Is the bridge going to be one lane? How is it going to affect us?”
Port Commissioner Steve Reed admits that the hurry-up-and-wait nature of the project has caused its share of headaches for the Santa Cruz Port District in recent years. And going forward, there will be logistics to muddle through. The harbor will lose several slips during the construction, for instance, forcing staff to play the boating version of musical chairs — doubling up some slips with two vessels at a time and towing boats to nearby end-ties.
It will absolutely be painful for everyone.
“We don’t have enough room to disrupt that much of the harbor at once. And yet we’re going to have to do that. They’re going to need room, and we’ll need to accommodate that,” Reed said.
Still, Reed predicts the impacts will be much more severe on the town as a whole. He’s sympathetic to the city staff, though, as he senses that state and federal regulators shoulder much of the blame for delays.
Right now, the city is getting ready to finally send the complicated project out to bid after it clears one last certification. For years, deadlines had shifted like a mirage in the desert, perpetually on the horizon — visible, yet abstract and out of reach.
“This project has always been 18 months into the future,” civil engineer Spangrud said.
One reason for the delays is concern about the worsened congestion construction will inevitably cause.
“It will absolutely be painful for everyone,” he said.
Concerns remain about bike safety
Although the retrofit is happening in the name of safety, there have been concerns about the details.
Santa Cruz Transportation and Public Works Commission Chair Phil Boutelle believes the project fails to implement sufficient measures to make the bridge and the surrounding area safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
“A project like this could have focused on slowing cars down, using engineering concepts and installing protected bike lanes,” said Boutelle, who works as a mechanical engineer.
The Murray Street Bridge has been the scene of some fatal collisions for bicyclists and pedestrians. In 2018, Benjamin Doniach, a longtime cyclist in Santa Cruz, was struck by a car and killed while riding westbound over the bridge, heading from Pleasure Point toward Seabright.
That same year, Santa Cruz was the second- and fourth-most dangerous city in California for pedestrians and cyclists, respectively, when compared to 101 other jurisdictions of similar population size. In 2018, 52 cyclists and 48 pedestrians were either killed or injured on city roadways.
“People don’t ride bikes because they don’t feel safe,” Boutelle said, adding that safety is crucial to get people out of cars and instead walking and biking, one of Santa Cruz’s climate goals.
Spangrud said the city’s hands were tied on improving safety on the bridge, as the state-mandated project is primarily meant to ensure the bridge will not fall in the event of a major earthquake.
The city of Santa Cruz approved the project before enacting much of its Vision Zero initiatives that require the city to center public works projects with an aim to prevent pedestrian and bicycle injuries and fatalities.
Still, the bicycle lanes on the bridge will be widened as part of the project, and the sidewalks for pedestrians will be expanded to 8 feet.
“We are widening the decks, which should make it a much safer traveling experience overall,” Spangrud said.
The problem with unprotected bike lanes — e.g., ones that run alongside cars, with no barrier in between — is that, to many motorists, it just ends up feeling like extra room on a widened road.
“If it feels like a wider road, drivers will go faster,” Spangrud said.
Even though the car lanes on the overhauled bridge will get only about half a foot wider, Boutelle said he worries about unintended consequences that stem from widening the bridge for cars. He wishes the city had explored other options.
“Traffic calming wasn’t part of this project,” Boutelle said. “It wasn’t addressed and, in my view, any project that involves roads should at least address that question.”
Spangrud agreed that it could be a potential problem.
“It is a concern, but there is no way to really attenuate that,” he said.
Past the point of no return
Santa Cruz has not had a public hearing on the Murray Street Bridge in recent memory.
The project has floated on and off of the Santa Cruz City Council’s consent agenda for years with one contract amendment after another — making six appearances since December 2012 — all of which passed unanimously without much fanfare. The most recent vote came this past December, to finalize the design and right-of-way services as part of a contract amendment.
The city of Santa Cruz most recently facilitated public dialogue on the Murray Street project in October 2019, at the Transportation and Public Works Commission’s Project Open House. The event also featured presentations on eight other initiatives and projects, including one at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 9 — another project that has prompted concerns from sustainable transportation advocates.
After taking questions from Lookout about the engagement process, public works staff contacted recently retired Assistant Public Works Director Chris Schneiter about Murray Street. Schneiter assured staff, “The project has been through numerous public meetings over the years,” according to city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith.
At the end of the day, city council members told Lookout, safety is paramount. Any delays to the vital seismic upgrade could be dangerous.
“It’s really important that we’re investing in infrastructure, especially something like the Murray Street Bridge that so many people use so often,” said Councilmember Justin Cummings, who is currently running for Third District county supervisor. “We can’t let the bridge fall out of compliance with earthquake safety rules. We wouldn’t want to have that happen. If the bridge fails, then you have to build a new bridge.”
At the same time, he hopes the wider sidewalks do make the bridge feel safer and more comfortable for everyone — and that the city more thoroughly incorporates active transportation goals into future projects.
Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson says she appreciates Boutelle’s concerns, and she’ll be double-checking with staff to see if any 11th-hour changes might be made in the name of improving bike safety over the bridge. Additionally, Kalantari-Johnson, who’s also running for county supervisor, says the community is due for a robust discussion about the projects and its impacts.
“We need to ensure that there’s enough notice and that people know. Some people do, but the majority of the community doesn’t know this situation is coming,” she said.
At this point, a restart on the bridge plan isn’t on the table.
Everyone had better buy an electric bicycle.
The project is expected to cost at least $30 million, although that estimate is likely too conservative as inflation continues to bedevil infrastructure project managers the world over.
“The environment right now is such that there are a lot of projects going on and contractors have their pick,” Spangrud said.
The majority of the money is federal, passed through Caltrans, but the city of Santa Cruz is slated to spend a little north of $4 million on design standards in the coming year.
Reed, of the port commission, says that — while he hasn’t seen a ton of public outreach from the city in the past couple years — there’s only so much the city staff would be able to do. Construction is inevitable. People can raise all the concerns they want, but the 30 months of road work are going to be tough, no matter what.
During construction, cyclists might have an easier time getting around than motorists. The closest transportation thoroughfare is the Arana Gulch multi-use trail for cyclists and pedestrians.
Beyond that, the nearest is Soquel Avenue.
“Everyone had better buy an electric bicycle,” Reed said.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect delays in the start date for the Murray Street bridge project. As of June 2022, the estimated groundbreaking per the City of Santa Cruz was not before spring 2023. The city has a dedicated project web page here, and further delays will be reflected in its interactive project map here.