Pedestrian safety issues. Inefficient transportation methods. Unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Santa Cruz County now has a plan to address these  problems.

Illustration by Manne Green

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) unanimously voted on Jan. 17 to widen parts of Highway 1 and construct a more efficient railway system between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. The SCCRTC first designed Phase 1 of this project seven years ago as the Santa Cruz County Travel Demand Model.

After Measure D’s passing in November 2016, the SCCRTC developed the Unified Corridor Investment Study (UCS). This second phase of the project came in response to public concerns regarding the safety and efficiency of countywide transportation. The UCS breaks down various projects to be implemented by 2035 in the Preferred Scenario. 

“There are a lot of different transportation needs out there so we always want to have multiple approaches when it comes to transportation planning,” said SCCRTC chair Ed Bottorff in an email. 

Funding for the UCS comes from two California Department of Transportation planning grants, the local voter-approved Measure D, the Transportation Development Act and the Santa Cruz County Planning Department. These sources make up a significant portion of the budget, yet there is still insufficient funding for the entire Preferred Scenario. This could impact the possible outcomes of the project. 

On the surface, the goals and proposed solutions of the Preferred Scenario made by Kimley-Horn, a consulting firm, and the SCCRTC appear sound in relation to Santa Cruz County transportation issues. In practice, some community members doubt the plan.

Adam Millard-Ball, transportation policy and planning specialist and professor at UC Santa Cruz, expressed mixed feelings about the UCS. He supports the rail trail corridor but thinks there are financial and logistical limits to the Highway 1 widening. 

“We don’t live in a fantasy world of unlimited space and money,” Millard-Ball said. “Coming up with these kinds of plans with optimal results is difficult and needs a lot of planning.”

Two design and engineering corporations — Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc. and Strategic Economics, Inc. — developed the initial project in  2012. 

Once SCCRTC hired the consultants, corporate stakeholders and interested members of the public discussed goals, qualitative and quantitative analysis and projects, said SCCRTC chair Ed Bottorff. Finally, they drafted a report and put it to a vote on Jan. 17.

At the meeting, community members expressed concerns with potential environmental impacts, specifically in relation to the Highway 1 widening aspect of the project. An SCCRTC report found the project could cause environmental degradation due to the presence of hazardous materials near the rail line and potential liquefaction — when soil becomes saturated and is more prone to erosion during an earthquake. 

“If there are potential liquefaction issues from earthquakes in project areas, then the project needs to be designed to withstand the effects of liquefaction,” said SCCRTC communications specialist Shannon Munz in an email. “If there is a history of hazardous materials in the area of where a project is planned to be built, a characterization study needs to be performed to assess any issues in order to protect workers and any future users of the facility.”

Analysis of soil samples along the future rail line found chromium, lead and pesticide concentrations exceeding the hazardous screening criteria. This means the  SCCRTC will need to conduct additional studies before construction  begins.

Community members like UCSC environmental studies professor Adam Millard-Ball think the project should have more effective goals. As it stands now, the SCCRTC still has a lot of work to do before most of the projects can be implemented.

“The gains for the highway widening will be short-lived, and not a great way to achieve the goals the committee wants,” said Millard-Ball. “We need to be focusing on more long-term goals that give people different travel options.”

SCCRTC holds meetings on the first Thursday of every month at the Santa Cruz Courthouse in the County Board of Supervisors Chambers.