Highway 1 futility: Why you might soon be spending more time in traffic

Traffic on Highway 1 between Morrissey Boulevard and Soquel Avenue has not abated with the addition of an exit-only lane.
Traffic on Highway 1 between Morrissey Boulevard and Soquel Avenue has not abated with the addition of an exit-only lane.
(Via Rick Longinotti)

Activist Rick Longinotti warns Highway 1 commuters about two county projects he believes will make traffic around Santa Cruz worse: the exit-only lane from Soquel Drive to 41st Avenue and a proposal for a Kaiser Permanente medical complex in Live Oak. The first will cause congestion and won’t bring improvement, he writes, while the second is misplaced and would “call for a 730-space parking structure, 50% larger than the current largest garage in the county.” Kaiser, he argues, should build so employees and patients have access to public transit.

People who commute on Highway 1 will be spending more time on the road if two projects come to fruition. The first project is the auxiliary lane (exit-only lane) from Soquel Drive to 41st Avenue. After suffering through the construction of these auxiliary lanes, scheduled to begin later this year, commuters who expect congestion relief will be disappointed.

The Caltrans environmental impact report (EIR) predicts the new auxiliary lane “would slightly worsen traffic operations” in the afternoon peak hour.

This project is one of several auxiliary lanes the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) plans from Santa Cruz to beyond Aptos. The EIR (Chapter 2.1.5-2.1.6) for the series of auxiliary lanes estimated “a very slight improvement in traffic congestion when compared to the no build alternative.”

And, as we know, the exit-only lane built in 2011 between Morrissey Boulevard and Soquel Avenue is just as congested as the through lanes.

So why is the RTC building a project that doesn’t relieve congestion?

I asked that question of someone who has served on the RTC for many years. His response was that some politicians view the auxiliary lanes as a stepping stone toward tearing down and rebuilding all the highway overpasses between Santa Cruz and Aptos to allow a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV, or carpool) lane in each direction.

This ambition was born in the 20th century, when Caltrans and local leaders did not take induced travel — the idea that when roads are expanded to meet higher capacities of traffic, traffic volumes rise and congestion quickly returns to similar levels — into account. We now have seen that expanded highways fill up with more traffic, nullifying short-term gains in congestion relief.

The dream of the HOV lanes should have been shattered by the RTC’s report in 2018, which said funding for the project would not be forthcoming until after 2035. But the dream lives on, perhaps due to the intense pressure on politicians to solve the congestion problem on the highway.

When it comes to appeasing voters, sometimes the appearance of addressing a problem matters more than real solutions.

In 2016, UC Davis professor Susan Handy, who studies and teaches courses in sustainable transportation, explained to a Santa Cruz audience the futility of widening highways because of induced travel. George Dondero, the RTC executive director at the time, asked, “Then what can we do for commuters stuck on Highway 1?”

She replied, “Give people alternatives.”

The most viable short-term alternative is operating express buses on Highway 1 in dedicated bus lanes on the shoulder. The RTC’s plan calls for operating buses in the auxiliary lanes, where they will be stuck in peak period traffic (see the photo above of the Morrissey-to-Soquel auxiliary lane). The RTC has incorrectly labeled its plan “bus-on-shoulder;” in truth, the buses won’t have their own lanes, except for short segments at overpasses.

In other cities with bus-on-shoulder, the bus competes successfully with autos for riders. Former Assemblyman Mark Stone carried legislation to allow bus-on-shoulder in Santa Cruz County.

So far the potential is untapped.

Don’t locate Kaiser in a transit desert

Another project will worsen the commute on Highway 1, if it is approved by the county board of supervisors.

Kaiser Permanente has proposed a large medical office building on the ocean side of Highway 1 in Live Oak. The plans call for a 730-space parking structure, 50% larger than the current largest garage in the county, Watsonville’s Civic Plaza (460 parking spaces).

A proposed Kaiser Permanente location in Live Oak would have a 730-car garage.
A proposed Kaiser Permanente location in Live Oak would have a 730-car garage. The author wants more transit-friendly options.
(Via Rick Longinotti)

It’s no wonder it’s so large.

The proposed location is over a mile from the nearest bus stop, making travel by bus inaccessible to Kaiser employees and patients.

It would be far better to locate Kaiser on Soquel Drive and Thurber Lane, near Dominican Hospital. (See Sierra Club comments on the draft EIR.) This lot is larger than the location Kaiser is currently proposing. The lot is currently for sale. This location has the highest-frequency transit service outside of the downtown-to-UCSC route.

The county recently won a grant for transit, bike and pedestrian improvements on Soquel Drive. This includes bus prioritization at 23 traffic signals between La Fonda Avenue and State Park Drive, protected bike lanes, and sidewalk and crosswalk improvements. Kaiser’s current choice of location does not reflect a concern for the health impacts of auto dependency: increase rates of obesity, asthma, stress, traffic injuries and deaths.

The Kaiser proposal should never have gotten past the front desk of the county’s planning department. The location outside the General Plan’s medical district, which runs along Soquel Drive, near Dominican Hospital, would require amending the General Plan and Zoning Ordinance. It is inconsistent with the county’s sustainability update that calls for reducing vehicle miles traveled through land use policy.

The EIR is not yet complete on the project, but when it is finished, it will come before the board of supervisors for public hearings and ultimately a vote.

The board of supervisors should act on behalf of public health, patient and worker access to transit and the climate action plan and deny the Kaiser project at the currently proposed location and encourage Kaiser to locate in the medical district.

Rick Longinotti is chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. His previous piece for Lookout, on the problems with Santa Cruz’s proposed downtown library, ran in July.

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