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Controversy Over Funding for Hwy 1 Widening

RTC considers funding options for environmental review
RTC considers funding options for environmental review
Now that the California Transportation Commission (CTC) has refused to set aside extra State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) funding for the controversial Highway 1 Widening Project, Santa Cruz County must look elsewhere for the $7 million needed for the project’s environmental review. The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) expects to decide where that money will come from after a public hearing at its November 7 meeting.

Several transportation commissioners have expressed interest in reprogramming funds from previously approved projects, including the $10 million set aside for the acquisition of the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way from Santa Cruz to Watsonville, where the RTC plans to develop the Santa Cruz County Coastal Rail Trail. But on October 10 the RTC staff made a recommendation for the commission to consider programming new federal transportation money—Surface Transportation Program (STP) and/or Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) funds—toward the environmental review, as an alternative to reprogramming already promised funds.

“Taking money away from projects you’ve already promised money to sets a really bad precedent,” said Transportation Planner Rachel Moriconi. Reprogramming the funds set aside for the rail right-of-way would definitely stall acquisition, which would in turn postpone the project, she added. The RTC is currently in closed negotiations with Union Pacific to settle on a price for the purchase of the right-of-way.

Let the voters decide
Regardless of how the RTC decides to fund the Highway 1 Widening Project’s environmental review, it has yet to face the question of funding for the project, itself. The latest “cost-escalated” budget estimate for widening the highway to six lanes from Morrisey to State Park Drive is $328 million. Some transportation commissioners have recently begun to express interest in widening the highway to eight lanes and extending the project to Larkin Valley Road, which would greatly increase the project cost.

But the RTC has only committed to spending $46 million of its projected available funds. The remaining funds would have to come from other sources.

The commission recently voted to place a sales tax measure to acquire funding for the project on the November 2004 ballot. For a sales tax measure to pass in Santa Cruz County, it must be approved by two thirds of the voters. According to County Supervisor and Transportation Commissioner Mardi Wormhoudt, it would be impossible to fund the project without a sales tax. Santa Cruz County will have to wait another two years to know whether it can afford to widen the highway.

According to Micah Posner of People Power! and the Campaign for Sensible Transportation, programming any kind of funding toward the environmental review without voter approval of the sales tax would be undemocratic. “They are trying to widen the highway before they know if the public will support it being widened,” he said.

But Wormhoudt argued that the RTC should go through with the environmental review because she wants Santa Cruz residents to be able to make an informed decision on whether the Highway 1 Widening Project should happen. “Its important that people know what the costs are, both economically and environmentally,” she explained.

Where has all the money gone?
Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn asked the CTC not to provide additional STIP funds for the highway-widening project because he was concerned that the development of other important transportation infrastructure could fall by the wayside. Instead of widening the highway, Krohn said the RTC should focus its resources on metering lights for highway on-ramps, a “parking cash-out” program, which would encourage commuters to leave their cars outside of the city, additional funding for the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and the implementation of the county bike plan.

Using new state or federal transportation funds or reprogramming existing funds toward the Highway 1 Widening Project’s environmental review would undoubtedly make less money available for other projects, according to Moriconi.

In anticipation of the need for extra funds for the environmental review, the RTC voted in June to shift funding for three regional projects, including the $10 million it set aside for the acquisition of the railroad right-of-way, from fiscal year ‘02–’03 to fiscal year ‘03–’04. Acquiring the right-of-way is the first step in developing the Coastal Rail Trail, a twenty-mile bike lane along the railroad corridor.

Wormhoudt, who voted against setting aside the rail funds, sees the acquisition of the right-of-way as a key element in creating a balanced countywide transportation system. “The money earmarked for the purchase of the rail line is a really modest sum, and it’s all we’ve got toward providing some sort of alternative,” she said. “I really hope there would not be an attempt to use that money.” If the RTC were to decide to use the rail money for a different purpose, it would have to get approval from the CTC.

The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Act, a potential source of new federal money for the environmental review, is dedicated to funding projects that improve air quality through mitigating traffic congestion. High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, the favored option for the added lane, qualify for CMAQ because they are designed to reduce traffic.

But Campaign for Sensible Transportation member Peter Scott argued that HOV lanes only work to relieve congestion under very specific conditions. “You have to have at least ten percent HOV vehicles,” he explained. “Otherwise, you don’t get optimum help adding HOV lanes.” Lanes that are originally designated as HOV lanes frequently become standard multi-flow lanes, Scott added. If STP and CMAQ funds are not programmed toward the environmental review, they could otherwise be used for projects like bike lanes and road improvements.

High costs for what?
At the October 10 RTC meeting, when Transportation Commissioner and County Supervisor Jan Beautz insisted that the environmental review should address the possibility of widening the highway to eight lanes instead of six, Wormhoudt questioned the project’s value as a cure-all solution to Santa Cruz’s transportation problems. “This escalation of discussion of lanes is exactly why we can’t talk of using one transportation alternative to solve all of our transportation problems,” she said. “It indicates the absurdity of the never-ending battle of trying to solve traffic congestion problems by adding freeway lanes.”

According to Beautz, widening Highway 1 is more important than bicycle infrastructure because it would reduce congestion on neighborhood streets. “The congestion on Highway 1 causes local residents to use surface streets to drive across the county,” she said. “We need to keep our cross-country traffic on the highway and not put it off on local streets where people live.”

But Wormhoudt argued that when the freeway reaches capacity people are likely to use alternative modes of transportation rather than taking local streets. “People have decided it’s not worth it to make that commute at commute hours. They’ve arranged carpools, chosen to take the bus, or decided not to work so far from home,” Wormhoudt said. “But once you’ve added lanes people go back to that mode.”

An informed debate
Last spring, the RTC considered placing a sales tax measure for the highway-widening project on this November’s ballot. But after conducting an extensive poll through Gene Bregman & Associates on voters’ willingness to approve the sales tax, the commission decided to postpone the measure until 2004.

Sixty-one percent of voters polled said there was a “great need” to widen Highway 1 with carpool lanes in order to reduce traffic. However, only 43% of those polled said they would vote in favor of a ballot measure to provide funds for the project by instituting a one half cent sales tax throughout Santa Cruz County for a period of twenty years. A 20-year half-cent sales tax would raise about $400 million over the next twenty years, which would provide the funding needed for the project.

The poll results did not indicate a high likelihood that two-thirds of Santa Cruz County voters would approve the measure. According to Posner, “The reason the RTC did not put the measure on this cycle is because they’re not sure it’s going to pass,” he said. “To pass a sales tax, you really have to get consensus among the public.”

The public hearing on funding for the environmental review will be held at the Santa Cruz City Council Chambers (FC) on November 7. Those interested in learning more about transportation issues in Santa Cruz County are welcome to visit People Power! at the Santa Cruz Hub for Sustainable Transportation, 224 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 or call 425-0665.


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