Brigading Caltrans for safety improvements

The squeaky wheel gets the grease. After community input, Caltrans agrees to safety improvements for Highway 17 drivers, so let’s grab this opportunity to improve the shoulder along California State Route 17 from Bear Creek Road to Alma Bridge Road along Lexington Reservoir.

CHP lane splitting

Caltrans responds to petition for Highway 17 safety improvements

Caltrans is driven by data, but they also pay attention to online problem reports, especially when they see a spike in reports. I don’t know if it’s possible to game this system, but Caltrans District 4 (which covers the San Francisco Bay Area, including Santa Clara County aka the “South Bay”), responded very quickly after an effort organized on Facebook resulted in an inundation of problem reports regarding hazardous conditions on the infamous “Highway 17.

Highway 17 is the main thoroughfare between homes in coastal Santa Cruz and jobs in Silicon Valley. The highway is a winding, mountain road that rises from near sea level, up to 1800 feet, and back down to 100 feet above sea level where State Route 17 becomes I-880 at I-280. Challenging geography and budget constraints meant engineers compromised on design features when they constructed this road in the 1940s. Danger increases in wet weather.

After a decade of drought during an era of significant population and job growth, a series of atmospheric rivers slammed northern California this past winter, resulting in a dramatic increase in collisions on this highway.

Some Facebook group members organized an effort to plead with Caltrans to improve safety on Highway 17. They won’t get the significant engineering they wish for, but Caltrans did move quickly to begin smaller safety improvements, namely higher friction pavement and improved guardrails. This project covers State Route 17 from Summit Road north to Alma Bridge Road just north of Lexington Reservoir.

Rumble Strips and bicycles

Interestingly (for me), safety improvements like this come in a package, a bit like a combo meal from a fast food restaurant. The Highway 17 safety package will include shoulder rumble strips. Rumble strips are used where run-off-the-road crashes due to inattention are a problem. Those who routinely travel 17 understand inattention probably is not a problem on this road.

Nonetheless, Sergio Ruiz, who runs the Pedestrian a Bicycle Program for Caltrans D4 out of Oakland, reached out to cyclists who ride over the Santa Cruz Mountains due to the hazards of rumble strips for cyclists. Several of us pointed out that almost everybody avoids Highway 17 altogether by riding other mountain roads, so Caltrans can add rumble strips to their heart’s content.

We do have one very important exception: Several people scramble along that 4/10ths of a mile of Highway 17 from Bear Creek Road to Alma Bridge Road. 500 people have logged rides to Strava so far along this stretch of Hwy 17 during a very rainy start to 2019. Sergio assured me there are no plans to rumble strip that portion of 17.

As an aside, though, I mentioned the drainage grates and crappy condition of the shoulder forces us to move out into the auxiliary lane here.

Sergio picked up on this and said he would try to get shoulder improvements for cyclists added into this overall safety project.

Can we encourage Caltrans to leverage an existing project and add this small bit of shoulder to their much larger safety project? If you ride this short stretch of Highway 17 on your bicycle, drop a note to Caltrans PIO for
Santa Clara County, Victor Gauthier (Victor.Gauthier@dot.ca.gov) and mention that you would like the shoulder improved here as part of an existing safety project, since Caltrans has to tear the pavement up anyway.

The motoring group also contacted the California Office of Traffic Safety, Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, the California Transportation Commission, the office of Senator Jim Beall, and various other decision makers. I’m told some of these people received upwards of 1,000 emails, which is enough to get anyone’s attention.

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