Ask Lookout: The West Cliff path near Natural Bridges remains a mess, for years it seems. What’s the holdup?

West Cliff Drive has been closed between Chico Avenue and Swanton Boulevard since April.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Who hasn’t seen the ongoing work/workaround on one of Santa Cruz’s most popular walkways? Good news on this one — and we’ve put together a reader’s guide/map to the public works projects coming soon to neighborhoods in Santa Cruz. What’s your question? Ask Lookout at news@lookoutlocal.com, and put Ask LO in the subject line.

If you’ve taken a stroll along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz sometime in the past five years — and that’s probably all of you — the sidewalk’s deterioration near Natural Bridges State Beach, accompanied by caution tape and various road work signs, likely stood out.

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A solid chunk of the sidewalk has crumbled away, narrowing the walkable path considerably. The barriers and torn-up pavement stretch from Chico Avenue to where Swanton Boulevard intersects with West Cliff Drive, right next to the parking lot that overlooks Natural Bridges, over about a block to a block and a half.

At first glance, it appears erosion from years of crashing waves could be the culprit. As it turns out, erosion is the main reason, but the damage stems from a different source: the 2017 winter storms.

Recall that intense winter, with downed trees scattered around Santa Cruz County, inescapable road closures, and no solid answer to the question: How long will it take to fix all of this?

The good news: The West Cliff storm damage repair is the final fix left over from the 2017 storms within the city of Santa Cruz, and it’s scheduled to finish in July.

Since April, public works personnel have been hard at work repairing the storm damage, moving the walkable path further toward West Cliff Drive and building a retaining wall, barrier rail and guardrail.

That’s welcome information for those missing their walks or evening drives to Natural Bridges, but it might leave you wondering: Why is a relatively run-of-the-mill storm repair project just now finishing up, five years after the initial damage?

Lookout dug into that question, and we’re also looking forward. Which city projects, drawn from the Public Works Department’s Capital Investment Projects (CIP) plan, will be starting up near you, and when?

The sidewalk under repair along West Cliff Drive.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We’ve put together a handy map showing all City of Santa Cruz planned public works projects through 2026. Just click or touch the dots on the map and you’ll see what’s planned when.

We list projects by year because it’s nearly impossible to narrow a project’s timeline down to months of beginning and completion. Therefore, the projects are color-coded by the year construction is expected to begin. These are only projects that are currently slated to begin in 2023 or later. The timelines are, of course, subject to change.

There are dozens of existing projects that are already underway that are not listed on our map. There is considerable detail about these projects, their timelines and other specifics on the city’s website.

(Let us know additional questions at news@lookoutlocal.com.)

But back to the question: Why does it seem to take so long to get work done?

Well, it’s all thanks to a long process required to even get these types of projects off the ground, at both the county and city levels. The West Cliff project is a city one, and we talked with the city’s Public Works officials to understand how its system works.

Short answer: It’s complicated. Any project needs funding (state, federal, or local), permits and sometimes study.

Mark Dettle, director of Public Works for the City of Santa Cruz, laid out the steps the department might have to take — and how many levels of government it might have to go through — in order to fund projects. He says grants will often not cover the entire cost of a project, and the remaining costs will fall on the city.

“It’s kind of typical that the city will fund 30% of the project design so the environmental studies can get done, and you have a decent shot at a grant,” he said. “Most granting agencies want a project that is ready to go to construction fairly soon. So we look at about a 25% match from local funds and then go after grants or federal funding for the rest.”

He cites the San Lorenzo River Lagoon Culvert Project, which entails providing a water height control system to prevent flooding and “reduce or eliminate breaches of the lagoon,” as an example of how quickly things can change.

“We went out and got a grant for a significant portion of that project,” he said. “Then the estimate showed that the first grant was way under what the project would cost, so we had to up the grant, and now we’re able to bid the project.”

The culvert project is just one of 13 projects currently in progress.

In total, funding can take multiple years to nail down. The long-planned Murray Street Bridge project, for example, has been in limbo for years because of convoluted, and sometimes unreliable, funding sources.

“That’s the last bridge that hasn’t been seismically retrofitted in the city, so there’s a program for that, there’s a federal contribution, and there’s a state match,” said Dettle. “We had that all ready to go probably 10 years ago and the state dropped their match, and that match fell onto local funding, and that’s not something that a city can tend to afford right away.”

All in all, funding required for projects is a moving target, according to Dettle.

“We’re always trying to keep the funding and grants lined up; we do a really good job of leveraging our local funds to get either grants or state money to go ahead and build projects,” he said. “Like the rail trail, for example, is funded with local money from 2016 Measure D, but we also just applied for a $35 million grant to fund construction of phases 8 and 9 of the rail trail. We’re always looking ahead.”

Funding, however, is just one piece of the seemingly shape-shifting puzzle that is breaking ground on a public works project. Obtaining permits can take just as much work and time, and also requires some preliminary work.

“Timing for obtaining permits depends — a Corps [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] permit can take a year, especially if you have to do a biological opinion,” said Dettle. “We’ve been working on permitting for the San Lorenzo River culvert project for about two years now. We’re ready to go with construction, but we’re still waiting for that Corps permit.”

If that seems a little drawn out, finalizing the Murray Street Bridge project’s plans along with addressing all of the confounding factors took a staggering 20 years to complete.

“You have to draft design plans, get permits, and address any changes in permit and design requirements,” said Dettle, adding that any delay in the process can give way to permits expiring. “The actual construction is usually the easy part of the project.”

This is no different for smaller projects.

City Senior Civil Engineer Josh Spangrud said Public Works needed multiple permits to begin construction — on top of resource shortages.

“We needed to get a coastal permit along with a biological opinion and an archaeological permit,” he said. “Then CZU displaced some people that would have worked on the project, and COVID slowed everything down.”

But the truth is, even on the off chance permits can be obtained speedily and there are ample resources to break ground, there’s no telling what could delay a project’s start time.

“One likes to believe we have a master plan, but for many of these projects we’re kind of reactive,” Spangrud said. “If there’s a water-main break or something like that, and a whole street needs to be fixed, then that messes up the master plan.”

With those provisos in mind, check out the map above.

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