Is there hope for fixing traffic congestion near Pajaro Valley High School?
On a recent Monday afternoon, amidst the shriek of whistles and the far-off shouts of coaches, Fourth District County Supervisor Greg Caput holds up his arms in bewilderment and shakes his head.
“You can’t park there!” he shouts to a car stopped in front of a “No Stopping at Any Time” sign. He is directing traffic at the intersection of Harkins Slough Road and the entrance to the Pajaro Valley High School—a location plagued by notoriously horrendous traffic before and after school hours.
At first, it seems as if Caput is putting on a show, considering that the June 3 election in which he is vying for re-election is drawing near. But as traffic backs up into the far distance in three directions, it becomes apparent that without someone directing traffic at the intersection, the situation could be considerably worse.
“I got calls about a month ago that the traffic is terrible there again,” says Caput. “I was told by the school district that they were going to hire [a traffic conductor] within a week or two weeks, and it didn’t happen, so I said ‘I’m going to go out there and move the traffic like I did last year.’”
Since Pajaro Valley High School opened in 2004, the traffic congestion that occurs before class begins in the morning and when it ends in the afternoon has been a constant issue, according to Principal Robert “Pancho” Rodriguez.
“It’s been an ongoing problem since we opened this site nine years ago,” says Rodriguez.
Spurred by letters and phone calls from Fourth District constituents, Caput first decided to take it upon himself to direct traffic last year. He and his staff were trained by the Watsonville Police Department and volunteered as traffic control guards until the Pajaro Valley Unified School District gained funding to hire someone in September 2013.
In January, the traffic control guard the district had hired moved on to a full-time job in another industry, and Caput once again received calls from concerned citizens. Caput resumed the role of voluntary traffic control officer from early March through April 9, when the school acquired a new guard.
“The traffic control guard works,” says Caput. “It gets people out of the school 20 to 25 minutes faster than they would if no one was there.”
Although the traffic conductor works as a temporary solution, there could be more permanent structural changes to solve the traffic issue, says Terry Medina, former Watsonville police chief and candidate for the Fourth District Supervisor.
Medina believes that in order to resolve the issue, all of the entities involved need to work together. This includes the California Highway Patrol, which has the jurisdiction to ticket illegally parked cars near the school’s entrance, and the Watsonville Police Department, whose purview lies on the other side of Green Valley Road.
“I would also include, for a long-term solution, the county’s transportation commission, as well as Caltrans because what ultimately may be the final solution is a footpath,” Medina says.
The construction of a walking path from the high school to Airport Boulevard is just one of the solutions proposed by Medina and others. Caput also points to alternatives like the opening of an access road to Airport Boulevard that was used during the construction of the school, or reopening Lee Road, which once connected Harkins Slough Road to Highway 1. But according to John Presliegh, director of Santa Cruz County Public Works, these roads are perpetually sinking and are often submerged during the rainy season, which makes them unusable.
In addition to crossing the intersection at the high school’s entrance, other dangers to drivers and pedestrians arise at the two bridges along Harkins Slough Road. Because these bridges were constructed years before a school site was proposed in this area, they were not intended for heavy foot traffic.
Because one of the bridges is located over the protected slough, which contains endangered species like the red-legged frog, it is near impossible to gain permitting to expand it. And due to a veto from Caltrans, a planned widening of the bridge over Highway 1 never occurred, according to Patrice Theriot, principal engineer with City of Watsonville Public Works.
“That [bridge] was never meant for pedestrian access. When it was built back in 1980, there wasn’t anything on that side of the highway,” says Theriot. “It does need to be upgraded, but when we applied for a permit from Caltrans when the school was built, they wouldn’t issue us a permit to make it compliant with current ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] standards.”
With so many bodies—including the county, the City of Watsonville, and Caltrans—involved in the area surrounding Pajaro Valley High School, there is a standstill in creating structural changes to solve the traffic issues. But some, such as Principal Rodriguez, feel that the congestion could be resolved if students and parents were more conscientious while driving and walking to and from the high school.
“There are a lot of people responsible for resolutions,” says Rodriguez, “and the community shouldn’t be exempt from that.”