The Fishhook at the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 1
The Fishhook, at the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 1.
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Ask Lookout: It’s looking like construction on the Fishhook might finally be completed soon — will it?

In this installment of Ask Lookout, we examine the latest chapter in the long and tangled history of an interchange that almost became a triple-decker, L.A.-style interchange back in the late 1990s.

QUESTION: For many who have lived here a certain number of years, it can be impossible to remember a time when the infamous Highway 1-Highway 17 interchange was free and clear of heavy machinery, traffic snarls and detour signs. Is there a time drawing near? And have we made it safer?

(What’s your question about Santa Cruz? Write us at news@lookoutlocal.com.)

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In fact, yes, it appears, as widening of the southbound ramp that leads from Highway 17 to Highway 1 — the latest project involving the Fishhook — has reached the “finishing touches” stage. Late April is when Caltrans says the two-year project will wrap up.

Anyone driving southbound from Highway 17 to Highway 1 recently, after stealthily making their way into the so-called “auxiliary lane” that was also created in recent years, has probably noticed the freshly paved second lane that awaits reopening.

This has been one pricey project: $22.1 million for the work that began in May 2019 and included major repaving work on Highway 1 between north Aptos and the connection to Highway 9.

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What did we get for all that money? No. 1, “pavement rehabilitation.” Then there’s the creation of curb ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act at on- and off-ramp intersections, along with upgrading guardrail and bridge rails.

“After this repaving work, a separate ramp safety improvement project followed at the Fishhook, which among other things increased the width on the shoulder of the Fishhook ramp,” said Kevin Drabinski, a Caltrans spokesman.

Width is a good and useful thing on that ramp, as we all know. Then Caltrans will tie up a few loose ends, including protections against our always-susceptible mountainsides.

“The final touches are being put on a soil nail retaining wall on the connector from southbound Highway 17 to southbound Highway 1 that is designed to hold back any future mudslides,” Drabinski said.

A quick history lesson on a case ‘of the uglies’

The politics of the Fishhook — one of the county’s quirkiest landmarks and a lightning rod since it was built in 1958 — probably deserve a book.

But the touchpoint seems to have been the 1990s, when a project that might’ve changed the course of the area’s slow-growth transportation future got swept aside — ushering in 25 years of minor tweaks that most will agree have done little to mitigate the zone’s major traffic problems.

So planners imagined one of the triple-tier highway interchanges you see in San Jose or Los Angeles. And that’s what Caltrans proposed after the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission decided an interchange frequently listed among the state’s most accident-prone needed an overhaul.

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It came to a head in 1998, when calls by Santa Cruz residents and elected leaders for something less urban and ugly doubled the $31 million price tag Caltrans was quoting.

“Nearly a decade of trying to fix the ‘fishhook’ interchange at highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz has ended up like so many cars that try to negotiate its treacherous curve,” the San Jose Mercury News wrote on May 22, 1998. “A victim of soaring costs and a case of the uglies, the fishhook intersection improvement project was officially buried Monday in a 5-4 vote of Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.”

That story cited an accident rate five times higher than the state average, and that came five years before brake failure of a big rig caused the worst accident in the interchange’s history. Twenty cars were involved, nine were seriously injured and an 8-month-old girl died.

The Fishhook at the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 1

Is it safer after current improvements?

When the RTC voted down the triple-decker plan in 1998, its executive director, Linda Wilshusen, said, “The public testimony was overwhelmingly against the project. Certainly in the near future, you’re not going to see any major changes there.”

And a quarter-century later, so it seems we haven’t. Asked this week to help run down the details of what has happened since, Wilshusen recalled all the twists and turns via email:

“What was finally constructed in the mid-2000s was primarily the SB17-SB1 merge lanes (the original proposal, which also entailed replacing the Branciforte overcrossing) and the auxiliary lane from Morrissey NB1-NB17. The SB1 merge lanes were eventually extended to the Soquel Avenue interchange. Other more minor projects since then have been safety improvements to the lane configuration from SB17-Ocean Street & NB1, and now, a safety improvement to the SB17-SB1 ramp itself.”

Though Caltrans wasn’t immediately able to provide data on how the safety record of the interchange has improved since the late ‘90s, Wilshusen said it’s been successful, and that she has no regrets that it didn’t happen differently.

“We didn’t have the money,” she said. “We urgently needed the safety improvements, and the project we did significantly lowered accident rates as well as setting the stage for future Highway 1 improvements.”

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