Highway 17 has a long and winding history of requiring grit and skill from those who traverse it. Of all of the unique characters to routinely travel “Killer 17,” one of the most legendary is Charley Parkhurst, a stagecoach driver who made his way West from New Hampshire during the gold rush in 1849.
Parkhurst, known as One-Eyed Charley for the black eye patch he wore after he lost his eye to the kick of a horse, held a reputation for being one of the toughest drivers to guide a six-horse stagecoach for the Pioneer Line between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz. He carried gold, mail and passengers over the summit, persevering over robbers (killing one named Sugarfoot), wild pig crossings, dangerous winter weather, and an unsteady mountain—the types of conditions that are easier for commuters to imagine after last year’s unrelenting storms. Only after Parkhurst’s death did the truth come out: he was, biologically at least, female.
The lesson, perhaps, is that Highway 17 has always been full of surprises. But as commuters look back on the year that rivaled the conditions over which Parkhurst triumphed, they are hoping for far fewer of them on the main artery between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley this year.
“It was so treacherous,” remembers Judy Jackson, a marriage and family therapist who lives in Santa Cruz and holds her practice in Los Gatos. “It felt like a video game: dodging debris, trees falling around you, and muddy water covering the road.” Jackson has been making the commute for 15 years, and says she has never seen anything like last year’s storms.
They came in with a bang in early January and didn’t let up. During the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, the first mudslide slammed a KGO-TV news van. That slide’s effects lasted days, leaving the road with only one lane of traffic, and drivers deciding between waiting five to seven hours in their cars to get back to Santa Cruz or finding accommodations over the hill, where most hotels were fully booked. For riders who chose to wait it out, the Los Gatos Pizza My Heart delivered on bikes to people stranded in their cars.
The rain poured on throughout the month, and on Feb. 7, the mountain came down again in the same spot when an estimated 300-foot section of hillside slid onto the highway, blocking traffic in both directions near Jarvis and Vine Hill roads. Commuters were left to extend their commute by at least two hours by taking Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay or take 101 via 156 in Watsonville, hoping for the best on those roads as well.
Erin Buchla is a twin specialist nanny whose clients for the last 18 years have been in San Jose, where she says there is better money to be made. She remembers one day in 2017 that every route into Santa Cruz was closed, leaving her unable to get home. “I realized we are sort of an island when it comes to these roads. We need to take care of them,” she says.
Many commuters found camaraderie through the Facebook group Highway 17 Commuters and its more colorful sister group, Santa Cruz Commuters Rants and Raves, which reminds members to “try not to be an asshole all the time.” A favorite topic on the site, second to “boulders” moving slowly in the fast lane, is the “wet spot,” at Big Moody Curve near Redwood Estates in the southbound lanes. Accidents regularly happen there, and the term EFD, for “Every Fucking Day,” has become a sort of motto for regular commuters. Buchla’s son is even making a clothing line that reps the EFD acronym.
It was on the Rants and Raves page that Buchla first floated the idea of hosting an appreciation event for the workers on 17. “There was just so much complaining, and I felt like instead of complaining we could turn around and appreciate these people for what they’re doing, and not play the blame game because this is Mother Nature we’re working against,” she says. There was a positive reaction to the idea, and soon her inbox was flooded with offers to contribute food, entertainment and services.
Two days after the second Jarvis slide, a contractor for Granite Construction, Robert “Bobby” Gill and his coworker were struck by a truck that had just emptied debris and was backing up. Both were trapped under the vehicle, and Gill was killed. After word of the tragedy got around, the commuter community rallied, and Buchla’s Go Fund Me page raised $4,200.
By the end of February, when a tree came down crossing all four lanes, commuters and mountain residents had taken matters into their own hands, with one person supplying a chainsaw to cut the tree before emergency crews could get there.
Rainfall totals in January were 11.13 inches, up from the previous year’s 8.31 inches, and February didn’t let up either with almost 10 inches of rain, a dramatic increase from .72 inches the previous year. “Nobody expected we’d get out of a drought in one season and our mountains would fall down on our roads,” Buchla says.
Road (and Reputation) Repair
CalTrans bore the brunt of criticism for not moving fast enough on repairs last winter, but a year after the storms, Third District Supervisor for Santa Cruz County Ryan Coonerty says he’s happy with how quickly they responded to the crisis.
Santa Cruz County CalTrans spokesperson Susana Cruz says the improvements have been focused on three areas:
- Sugarloaf and Glenwood, where the viaducts have had drainage improvements and paving;
- The Wedding Chapel, where construction is ongoing after a slide went under the roadway and did some damage to water tanks. It required improvements through a paving and a barrier slab. They also did a soldier pile wall, drainage and slope reconstruction. The remaining work will take three or four more weeks with the total project costing 3.5 million;
- Jarvis Road, where work is continuing after the slides. Cruz says there is an ongoing effort to repair the road from storm damage and maintenance from Scotts Valley to the county line at the summit. There are water percolation issues, so they are putting in a mattress drain system. This cost of this project is 1.5 million.
On the Santa Clara County side of the road, CalTrans is attending to sinkholes. Near mile marker 3.0 (measuring from the County Line at Patchen Pass), crews detected a sinkhole that appeared on the embankment as a result of the heavy winter storms. Further investigation showed that the culvert became separated, causing more erosion, which extended below the northbound number two (slow) lane. They discovered a second drainage system problem at post mile 3.1, where an invert was completely rotted away and washing out material under the pavement.
Also in April, a sinkhole began to manifest itself south of Idylwild Road at mile 1.6, close to the Redwood Estates exit that also leads to Holy City, once a religious community with a famously lurid history. The department’s geotechnical staff determined that higher groundwater levels due to the heavy winter storms were causing the sinkholes. If allowed to continue unabated, they warned, the sinkholes would expand further, with the resulting pavement damage causing closure.
Meg Brown, an artist and educator who is now retired, remembers when it was common for cars to overheat going over the summit. Her favorite improvement on Highway 17 is the raising of the berm by four inches to help block oncoming headlights, but she also appreciates the attention to detail that has gone into the recent repairs, including the faux rock walls on the exterior of the barrier walls.
“It’s a beautiful hill, and they stayed with the beauty of the hill just by that little detail, besides all of the engineering that went into it to make sure the hill doesn’t slide in and block people from being able to get to work,” Cruz says.
The high volume of commuters poses the biggest challenge to road repairs, says Cruz. There are currently 63,000 people commuting over the hill to work each day.
Some, like Jackson, have grown to love their commutes over 17. She’s noticed that the scanning of the road seems to mimic the healing that happens in EMDR therapy used for trauma. She says it helps her to process the traumatic experiences of her clients as well as her own grief she experienced when her mom passed away. “Where I used to dread my commute, I now see it as sort of meditation and therapy and appreciate the calm it brings,” she says. “Well, when the road isn’t being washed away in a storm.”
Even with an increasing number of commuters, Cruz says the Safe on 17 Task Force that was developed 10 years ago has had an impact on reducing collisions by 40 percent in the last decade by focusing on increased enforcement and visibility by the California Highway Patrol, changeable message signs indicating speed or warnings, closed circuit TV cameras and traffic monitoring stations.
That trend has reversed in the last two years, though. In an email, Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission’s transportation planner Ginger Dykaar tells GT that “over the last three years, the number of injuries and fatal collisions on Highway 17 have increased substantially, with the increase in 2016 being the greatest since the Safe on 17 program began.” Complete 2017 collision data will be revealed at the Safe on 17 meeting next month.
“It felt like a video game: dodging debris, trees falling around you, and muddy water covering the road.” – Judy Jackson
Of the 989 collisions in 2016, 266 were injury accidents, and two of those were fatal. That number of fatal injuries may seem shockingly low to commuters who see semingly physics-threatening accidents regularly, but most years, the fatalities are either one or zero—a huge improvement from 36 in 1967, and 8 in 1990. Throughout the years, speeding has consistently been listed as the primary factor for collisions.
While there is not a lot that can be done to widen the road because of the geographical limitations, the Highway 17 Access Management Plan, a multi-agency effort, hopes to reduce “contact points” by studying the congestion patterns. They believe that reducing the entrances and exits through driveway consolidation will help keep traffic moving more smoothly. “You’re not widening the roadway, you’re trying to make that roadway as productive and as least congested as possible,” Cruz says.
“It’s always a balance, because people rely on those entrances or exits to get to their homes,” Coonerty says, “so it’s looking at changes on a micro level to understand what can be done and how it would impact people.”
Stephen Brown, who began commuting on Highway 17 in 1980 and made the trip “only a couple thousand times” before he was able to work as a technical writer from home in Santa Cruz, appreciates these minor adjustments. He recalls the slight widening of curves and the addition of a shoulder to the second curve after the Glenwood Cutoff where there used to be regular accidents. “They did a fairly minor change. All it meant is there was a little shoulder there, it was a little wider, and it made it hugely easier to drive, in ways that most people don’t pay attention to,” he says.
Brown has paid a lot of attention to Highway 17, though, making the highway a fictional character in a book he wrote after he served on a jury involving a road-rage shooting death of a man in 1991. The incident apparently started near Lexington Reservoir, continued over the 26-mile stretch of the mountain, and ended near 41st Avenue, where paramedics found the victim’s body and initially thought it was a hit and run incident. In his glove box, authorities found the licence plate of the alleged shooter, one of many clues that didn’t add up to a conviction for the hung jury.
The Metering Effect
The idea of keeping Santa Cruz small and sacred goes back as long as the road has been in existence, to the Ohlone who lived here for 10,000 years before the Spanish arrived. Father Lasuén, founder of nine of the 21 California missions, made the journey over the hill, according to historians, on Aug. 28, 1791. In his 1791 report written at the San Carlos Mission, he expresses excitement about building a trade route between the Santa Clara and Santa Cruz missions, and although it was a rough road, he would have it repaired “by means of the Indians of the mission”—i.e., slave labor.
More than 200 years later, one-third of Santa Cruz County relies on the economic connection to the South Bay, according to Coonerty.
Just as long-standing is residents’ resistance to the commute. Controversies about making the road more direct began in the 1950s, according to Richard Beal’s 1991 book Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. At the time of the debate over whether to designate 17 as a freeway in the 1960s (which would have eliminated entrances and exits), then-Santa Cruz County Supervisor Henry Mello introduced a resolution to make Highway 17 a one-way road northbound from Santa Cruz. It failed by a 3-2 vote.
This idea appeared again in 1984 when Gary Patton, then a Santa Cruz County Supervisor, said, “A decision to widen Highway 17 will fundamentally alter the future of the [Santa Cruz] community. If we add more lanes to the highway, they will be used to capacity and it will destroy the independence and uniqueness of this community. The only thing that gives us any chance of maintaining our quality of life here is that mountain.”
Coonerty’s idea of quality of life for Santa Cruzans has evolved since Patton spoke those words. He’d like to see our local economy supporting Santa Cruz residents. “Every hour you’re sitting in your car trying to get to and from work is an hour you’re not spending with family or volunteering in the community or coming to a city council meeting,” he says.
He points to the growing tech companies Looker, Productops, Buoy, and Amazon. “Amazon’s growing here is a product of their engineers not wanting to commute over the hill. I think companies are recognizing they can have access to a talent pool and lower real estate costs here and happier employees if they set up satellite offices or they let them work remotely in co-working spaces or at home. I’m hopeful that the future economy, by allowing that flexibility, can be a little more humane for our residents,” he says.
Matthew Swinnerton, programs director of Santa Cruz Works, whose mission supports the development and growth of tech and science companies here in Santa Cruz, says it’s already happening. “They’re already here. If you go to Amazon’s career page, they have 32 open positions. Looker has 25 positions. Plantronics has 26. Those are just the published positions, and I know Amazon and Looker are going to increase that significantly,” he says.
Buchla, who has two side jobs as an Uber driver and caterer, ended up throwing the appreciation party that her Go Fund Me page had funded for Highway 17 workers, police and firefighters on June 17 of last year. It included a host of raffle prizes—including four box seat tickets to the Giants and Sharks games and five-star hotel stays—food from Corralitos Meat Market, beer from New Bohemia Brewing, and ice cream from Marianne’s, as well as music by local musicians.
Like so many, Buchla dreams of ending her daily Highway 17 drive even under the best conditions. She may not be able to find high paying nanny jobs here, but she has her sight set on opening a café in Capitola Village.
“Maybe the commute will be over,” she says.