Santa Cruz traffic: Breaking the gridlock

From the Sentinel Opinion page;  the May 16, 2013 Editorial:

La Fonda Bridge under construction over Highway 1/Shmuel Thaler, Sentinel



Bridges are all the topic these days.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s the Bay Bridge — or rather the snapped steel bolts and possible delay in the scheduled Sept. 3 opening of the $6.4 billion span.

Along Highway 1, it’s the skeletal structure forming across Highway 1 — the new La Fonda Bridge that replaces the old structure torn down last summer as part of the $21 million auxiliary lanes widening project managed by the county Regional Transportation Commission.

In the city of Santa Cruz, talk this week was about building a new bridge over the San Lorenzo River to help alleviate traffic gridlock at the infamous intersection of highways 1 and 9 and River Street.

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council voted unanimously to keep after state transportation officials to fund a new bridge, which would replace the existing 57-year-old structure and add one traffic lane on the southbound side, two lanes on the northbound side and remove a center pier that can collect logs and other debris when the river is in high flow.

Although in the end he voted for keeping the proposal viable, Councilman Micah Posner took some flak for his comment that past councils “rarely” got behind “capacity increasing projects” and that adding lanes would do just that.

Which, of course, is exactly the point.

We’ll stay away from his exchange with Councilwoman Pamela Comstock over an email campaign that bicycling advocate Posner seemed to solicit by suggesting the purpose behind widening would be to attract a new big box store for the Harvey West area, perhaps even a WalMart. The council has stated it wants the city to explore bringing another large retailer to the area, without naming a specific company.

Also put aside, for a moment, the almost revolutionary shift in thinking after previous councils have put up roadblocks to such common-sense solutions as widening Highway 1 outside city limits — and consider just how bad this intersection is, day in, day out.

The intersection is one of two primary gateways from the east or north into the city. It handles university traffic. Vehicles into Harvey West. Drivers trying to reach or leave Costco, Plantronics, the Tannery Arts Center and the county education offices. Buses. Bikes.  Tourists. The homeless services complex. Anyone trying to get downtown or to Mission Street.

Encourage more vehicle traffic? Guess what? That traffic — more than 60,000 cars a day in 2011 according to Caltrans statistics — was “encouraged” years ago and now people just get discouraged by the endless bottlenecks. Nothing environmentally sound about thousands of cars idling away trying to get through the intersection.

Caltrans officials, for their part, expressed discouragement years ago, when city reluctance to rally behind major traffic improvements sent planners off in search of projects communities actually supported. Business owners, residents and commuters, though, remember the maddening day in November 2009 when a water main broke and the intersection was completely shut down, trapping motorists for several hours. Just a couple of months before, a pedestrian accident also resulted in motorists being stranded in gridlock for hours at the intersection. City economic development officials have long noted the main question they get from businesses they either want to retain or bring to Santa Cruz is what will be done about the intersection.

Will Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over the two state highways, move the project up through its own funding bottleneck, and will the RTC be able to help? The first step seems underway to making that happen. Keep up the pressure.

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