Can the county’s new transportation measure win the hearts and minds of activists?
Transportation planners wanted to avoid a repeat of their last tax measure vote, in which they were handed an embarrassing defeat by Santa Cruz County voters in 2004. Opposition from sustainability advocate groups like People Power sunk that sales tax measure, two thirds of which was slated to go to widening Highway 1.
Early indicators suggest the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) will avoid making the same mistakes the second time around. With the clogged highway not a priority for many locals, the RTC has opted for a different approach, with a measure expected to be on the ballot in 2016. The process began in 2005, shortly after the defeat of the previous tax, with a transportation task force led by then-County Treasurer Fred Keeley.
This time around, the RTC wants to give the people what they want. The possible 2016 sales tax reboot, which the RTC will review at its Dec. 3 meeting, would split money between five buckets—the largest of which would support neighborhood projects, like local roads in the county. Twenty-five percent would go to the highway.
But even this new breakdown could encounter potential roadblocks, including some of the activist groups who mobilized against Measure J in 2004. Any money for highway widening, they say, will be a step in the wrong direction for the county’s carbon dioxide emissions.
“I will not be able to face my grandchildren on my deathbed unless we do something about our CO2,” an impassioned Pauline Seales told the RTC on Nov. 19. “Please no more lanes. No more CO2.”
If the RTC decides to put its half-cent 30-year sales tax measure on the ballot, it would need to pass with a two-thirds vote. A recent poll showed 73 percent support, but public comments so far have been mixed.
Many of the anti-highway activists, among them Rick Longinotti and Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner, focused on the environmental impact report (EIR) for highway widening.
The recent report, they noted, says that extending merge lanes from Morrissey Boulevard to 41st Avenue would slow southbound traffic at the peak hour by 2 percent, compared with leaving the highway as it is now.
But the 500-plus-page EIR also explains that southbound travel time in the “peak period,” which lasts from 2 to 8 p.m., would go down, and travel speeds would go up. The EIR notes that northbound morning traffic would improve slightly, and that overall, the highway would accommodate more cars. The EIR additionally explores a more expensive plan to add carpool lanes.
As it stands now, 30 percent of the ballot measure, if approved, would go to neighborhood projects, like bike infrastructure, school traffic safety and road maintenance to the tune of $135 million.
Twenty-five percent, or $113 million, would fund Highway 1 improvements—enough to build the merge lanes, also called “auxiliary lanes,” out to 41st Avenue. Fifteen percent, or $68 million, would go to each of the three remaining areas: rail corridor improvements, public transit and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, also being called the Rail Trail.
RTC Commissioner Zach Friend implored skeptics to look at highway widening as a working people’s issue—something that affects people who live in and around Watsonville, where housing is more affordable, and work in Santa Cruz, where there are more jobs. It’s fair to say that the issue has broken down along geographic lines, at least in the past. The only place in the county where the RTC’s Measure J got more than 50 percent of the vote in 2004 was in Watsonville. In the city of Santa Cruz, it got a dismal 35 percent. It got 43 percent support countywide, falling short of the required two-thirds vote.
This isn’t the first time since the failure of Measure J that county transportation officials have weighed a ballot measure. Four years ago, the commission considered a $10 registration fee for vehicles that would have generated $2.2 million a year, but wasn’t confident it would get enough support.
Friend and fellow commissioner John Leopold, both of them county supervisors, each say that between the highway, bikes and trains, there is something in this ballot measure for every county resident, no matter how they want to get around. They had one clear message to skeptics of the comprehensive approach to transportation: Don’t screw this up for everyone, yourselves included.
Friend and Leopold are all-in on this ballot measure for different reasons. Friend says it’s time to start making progress on the highway. Leopold is excited about the money for rail and bike projects.
“There are things in here that would be my priority,” Leopold says. “But what I’ve learned in my seven years as county supervisor is that you can try to get everything you want and end up with nothing. Or you try to get most of what you want and get a lot.”
GRIDLOCK Pauline Seales (holding sign) says regional leaders should do what they can to cut carbon emissions, even putting the brakes on highway widening. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER