The Santa Cruz city council will consider Tuesday night whether to move forward on widening the Highway 1 bridge over the San Lorenzo River. The city plans to widen this bridge from four lanes to seven lanes at an estimated cost of $10M to $15, half using local funds, the other half using state provided dollars. Anybody who drives to Harvey West, UCSC, and up the coast recognizes the bottleneck on Highway 1 between Highway 17 and Highway 9.
The existing four lane bridge (two lanes in each direction) was built in 1956 and currently serves 59,000 vehicles per day. Flood control is mentioned as a benefit of replacing the bridge, but the primary purpose of this proposed project is improving traffic flow and safety for current and projected future demand. Highway 1 is a limited access highway at this point so there’s no direct impact on bicycle or pedestrian access, but some local bike advocates oppose this project because they feel the money can be better spent on other projects.
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A bigger highway to handle growth?
The preliminary analysis shows this bridge project will not induce additional traffic demand, and I’m mostly inclined to agree with that analysis. Although large parcels open to development still exist inside the city of Santa Cruz, any new development will be driven by a desire by people to live closer to work and city amenities. Any further development outside of city limits along Highway 1 north of Swift Road is largely prohibited.
This route also provides access to the lower San Lorenzo Valley along Highway 9. This valley, which feature exurban bedroom communities with 40+ mile commutes, had among the highest foreclosure rates along coastal northern California during the housing bubble crash of 2008. The population of the lower San Lorenzo Valley dropped by over half between the 2000 and 2010 census counts as people sought housing closer to work. While construction is proceeding like gangbusters in urban areas of California over the past six months, investors have been extremely reluctant to finance new ultra low density residential projects.
The city’s project study does anticipate increased demand due to growth at the University of California – Santa Cruz. This growth will happen whether the city widens the freeway or not.
The study does not mention possible commercial development at Harvey West, where Costco is located. There are occasional whispers of additional big box store development in Harvey West that would benefit from the higher capacity this proposed bridge could provide. Much of both the opposition and support for widening the San Lorenzo River bridge stems from this possibility that a big box retailer will move into Harvey West, with the spectre of increased traffic congestion or the promise of millions in sales tax, depending on your point of view. Big box is dead, however — the existing large retailers are downsizing their stores to avoid irrelevance and nobody is building new super centers and large marts.
The usual nonsense in Caltrans traffic projections
The latest traffic counts from 2011 shows the Highway 1 San Lorenzo River Bridge currently handles 59,000 vehicles per day. Caltrans projects 71,000 trips by 2015 and 100,000 trips by 2035. Santa Cruz city councilman Micah Posner says he’s keeping an open mind about this project, but he sees something funny with those projections: Since the year 2000, traffic counts show a steady and consistent decrease in trips from year to year. In 2002, traffic engineers counted 66,000 vehicles daily over this bridge. In 2005, this dropped to 62,000 vehicles per day. Traffic remained steady at 60,000 trips per day in 2008 and 2010, and dropped slightly to 59,000 in 2011.
The city of Santa Cruz preliminary study estimates the bridge replacement will cost roughly $10M to $15M. People Power Santa Cruz, the local human powered advocacy group, points out the cost of replacing this 300 foot bridge would pay for the entire Santa Cruz segment of the Coastal Rail Trail.
City Council Meeting
The city council will discuss this and the city Capital Improvement Program (CIP) beginning at 7 PM during the Tuesday city council meeting on May 14, 2013. City council meets at City Council Chambers, 809 Center Street in Santa Cruz.