The situation on Highway 1


In Santa Cruz County, Highway 1 is the primary north-south highway, running from the Monterey County line at the Pajaro River bridge (milepost 0) to the San Mateo County line north of Waddell Creek (milepost 37.45).

Between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, Highway 1 is essentially a four-lane freeway, and is an object of controversy and concern. The most heavily traveled section of the road has been operating at capacity during peak hours since the late 1980s. Some feel that the resulting traffic congestion mandates widening the road to six or eight lanes, a strategy that is sure to fail, in that such a strategy will not relieve traffic congestion on the road. (For details see this page.)

Adding lanes to Highway 1 will not only increase traffic congestion (particularly on other streets and roads), but will also exacerbate global warming. In addition, such a strategy does little to enhance our mobility. It wastes precious resources that could otherwise be used to improve public transit and other transportation modes.

Nevertheless, the majority of our Regional Transportation Commission has made the widening of Highway 1 its top priority for the expenditure of our scarce resources. The result is that there are now at least four (or more—perhaps eight) Highway 1 widening projects that are currently in various stages of completion (or not, as the case may be). We summarize those three projects in the following paragraphs.

Descriptions of Highway 1 Widening Projects

(Click on the more » button to read the details.)

  • The Route 1/17 Merge Lanes Project: This is the project for which basic construction was completed in November 2008, extending from the Pasatiempo interchange on Highway 17 to the La Fonda overcrossing on Highway 1. Although this section of the route includes the Fishhook, nothing at all was done to the Fishhook. Furthermore, even Caltrans admits that this project will do nothing to relieve traffic congestion; it is billed as primarily a safety improvement project. The landscaping for this project was delayed until its funding was finally released in October 2009. It has now been installed.

    “Merge Lanes” puts it mildly: It is a project to widen (except for the Fishhook itself) this section of Highway 1. It was approved by our Regional Transportation Commission in 1998, and finally gained the needed funding in 2006.

    As originally proposed in 1987, the project would have replaced the existing Fishhook with a three-level flyover. However, there was much objection, led primarily by the Fishhook Neighbors. Caltrans then presented a number of lower-cost options, which eventually resulted in the current project. At that time, the estimated cost was $33.4 million, a number that subsequently increased significantly.

  • The second Highway 1 widening project is called the Soquel/Morrissey Auxiliary Lanes Project. This project, which will widen the highway between the Morrissey Boulevard and Soquel Drive interchanges, forms a 0.98-mile piece of the nearly nine mile, eight lane HOV Lanes Widening Project (see below). It should rightfully have been included in that larger project, especially since it builds in the eight lane capacity at the La Fonda bridge overcrossing with a near doubling of the road cut at that point and involved the removal of all the adjacent vegetation. For this reason, and because it does not improve the confusing interchanges at Morrissey Boulevard and Soquel Drive, and because it provides only minor improvements that would provide for pedestrians and bicyclists, we strongly opposed its separate construction.

    After submitting detailed comments on Caltrans' Environmental Document, and after receiving unsatisfactory responses to those comments, we decided to file a lawsuit challenging the project, which we did in October, 2009, in Superior Court in Sacramento. We were advised that we had a strong case, with a reasonable chance to receive a judgement in our favor.

    However, after a lengthy and costly process of assembling the record and preparing our case, Judge Marlette, in March of 2011, ruled in favor of Caltrans. After careful consideration, we decided not to appeal the ruling.

    Construction of the project commenced in February, 2012. Update November, 2012: The La Fonda bridge has been removed, along with every tree and shrub, and preparation has been undertaken for the erection of new walls of concrete.

  • The third Highway 1 widening project, originally known as “Phase 2” of the Highway 1 Widening Project (Phase 1 being the Merge Lanes Project), and subsequently called the Highway 1 High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes Widening Project, is now called the Highway 1 Corridor Plan. It would widen Highway 1 all the way from Morrissey Boulevard to Larkin Valley Road by adding a full HOV (carpool) lane in each direction, in addition to auxiliary lanes for this distance. Thus Highway 1 would be doubled in width, widening it to eight lanes from the current four for the entire distance—nearly nine miles. (The “Soquel-to-Morrissey Auxiliary Lanes Project” is a 0.98-mile segment of the HOV Lanes Widening Project.)

    The Environmental Analysis of this project, begun in 2003, is still ongoing. Release of a Draft of this analysis is now scheduled to occur in 2013, following a number of delays. Our Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) has already spent over $12 Million of our scarce resources—for this analysis. The funding for this project's construction, originally estimated at approximately $300 Million, was to have been provided by an increase of the County's sales tax—half a cent over 30 years—an amount that was the principal part of Measure “J”. This measure was soundly defeated in November 2004 by the voters. It gained the support of a mere 43 percent of the voters—far less than the required 67 percent. (The Campaign for Sensible Transportation, through its work on the “NO on J” campaign, helped to defeat this measure.)

    In 2011, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in its response to the submission of the Draft Environmental Document for the Highway 1 HOV Lanes Widening Project, refused to sign on to the document, owing to the current fact that funding for the project's construction is not “reasonably available”.

    However, following a lengthy discussion involving representatives from Caltrans, the FHWA and the RTC staff, a strategy for (apparently legally) piece-mealing (or “segmenting”) the HOV Widening Project was arrived at. This strategy involves “tiering” the project, including its environmental analysis.

    “Tier I” involves a consideration and environmental analysis of the complete nine-mile corridor. “Tier II” involves a focus on a segment of the complete project—say the one-mile segment from Soquel Drive to 41st Avenue—to consider construction-level details and demonstrate its “operational independence”. An August 2011 slide show that summarizes the pros and cons of “tiering” may be found here.

    At the meeting of the RTC on November 17, 2011, George Dondero—the Executive Director of the RTC—presented this report. The report provides an outline of the amount of time it would take to complete improvements on the Highway 1 corridor in Santa Cruz County, using the tiered approach to environmental analysis and given likely sources of funding. The last page of Dondero's report (the attachment) lists five additional Highway 1 segments.

  • The fourth Highway 1 widening project—from the Soquel Drive intersection to 41st Avenue—would add auxiliary lanes to that segment. This project is currently estimated to cost $18.5 million. At its meeting of December 1, 2011, our Regional Transportation Commission voted to allocate $4 million of our scarce resources toward this project. The key vote, on a motion by Commissioners Stone and Pirie to delay this project in order to spend the money instead on fixing local roads, failed on a very close 6 to 6 vote.