Kelley Howard remembers her son Josh as “just so full of life.”
Josh was killed on Highway 9 on the night of Thursday, Feb. 21, while walking along the narrow shoulder after working a shift at Castelli’s Deli Café. He was heading to his mom’s home in Henry Cowell Redwood State Park. That’s where Kelley, a park ranger who thought of Josh as her “best friend,” was eagerly awaiting his company. “He’s the happiest person I know. I’m not that happy. In his 22 years, he was happier than I’ve been in 40,” Kelley says.
The collision, which is under investigation, happened on a stretch of highway slated for future improvements outlined in the county transportation commission’s “Draft Highway 9 San Lorenzo Valley Complete Streets Corridor Plan.”
Residents of the surrounding San Lorenzo Valley want to see those improvements as soon as possible. A petition in Josh’s honor urging action on this ribbon of road has garnered more than 1,200 signatures.
Assemblymember Mark Stone says in a statement that Caltrans, the state’s transportation office, argues too often that safety improvements must be justified by sufficient accident statistics. “One death is too many,” he states. “Caltrans should prioritize bike and pedestrian safety on Highway 9 and on other state highways that serve as surface streets for a community.”
Stone says his office is working with stakeholders and Caltrans to identify funding sources to improve safety on the highway, which serves as the main street through the San Lorenzo Valley.
Congressmember Anna Eshoo says, in a statement, that she met with county officials last week to talk about road improvements in light of the county’s infrastructure needs after winter storms, and about Highway 9 improvements.
Caltrans spokesperson Susana Cruz says that the department takes highway safety very seriously and is funding the Highway 9 plan, which is expected to be finished by the summer and could offer an initial roadmap for spending. “Once this report is complete, it should shine a light on what the community priorities are,” she says.
In December, Caltrans approved Highway Safety Improvement Program funds for pedestrian crossings on Highway 9, including flashing lights to increase visibility for existing crossings.
The California Highway Patrol is still investigating the cause of the collision and death, although Kelley says that an officer told her they believed that the driver crossed over the white line into the narrow shoulder area where pedestrians walk.
The Highway 9 plan identifies 28 projects, and the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) prioritized four projects as most important—all of them on the stretch of highway between downtown Ben Lomond and downtown Felton, including the area around San Lorenzo Valley’s three public schools and the road near the intersection of Graham Hill Road, where Josh was struck.
Earlier in February, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) discussed the Highway 9 plan, and Felton transportation advocate Brian Largay mentioned the stretch where Josh would die two weeks later. Largay asked commissioners to picture themselves walking along a retaining wall, their shoulders brushing against it, as cars rushed past at arm’s length. “A child making that walk every day will get the impression that this system doesn’t value them very much,” Largay said.
Josh’s full legal name was Josh Jaumouille-Howard, although Kelley says that everyone knew him as simply Josh Howard. The petition in his honor, started by another San Lorenzo Valley resident, calls for the highway where Josh died to be dedicated to him. Kelley says that specific detail isn’t important to her, although she would be open to the idea, especially if it reminds other young pedestrians to be extremely careful when they’re walking on the shoulder. The main thing she wants is to know is when projects will break ground.
“I want actual dates,” she says. “This could take years. How many people are going to get hurt or die?”
RTC Senior Transportation Planner Rachel Moriconi says the first step is securing money.
The $10 million from Measure D, approved by voters in 2016, is a start, but a primary source of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects is the state’s Active Transportation Program. The program is popular, and fuel-efficient vehicles have eroded the gas-tax revenue that pays for it. Last year, requests for the funding were five times higher than available funds, Moriconi explains. The state’s 2017 S.B. 1 provided some additional funding to address some of the backlog of transportation need, she says. But the state, she says, needs a longer-term fix to replace the gas tax with more stable funding.
The county Department of Public Works, Moriconi notes, would be the lead agency in constructing any improvements to Highway 9.
Pedestrian safety is more than just a Felton issue.
A new study has found that pedestrian deaths are approaching a 30-year high. Some of that increase can be attributed to population growth. Other contributing problems include alcohol use, speeding, unsafe infrastructure, the prevalence of SUVs, and distractions on behalf of both pedestrians and drivers.
In the city of Watsonville, leaders are so troubled by the trend that they’ve signed onto a Vision Zero initiative to aim for eliminating pedestrian deaths by 2030.
Joni Martin, who started the petition for Josh, says that after the accident, she couldn’t get Josh and Kelley off her mind. Her kids have walked that same stretch of Highway 9 many times, and she remembers being involved in efforts 11 years ago to try and start momentum to build badly needed bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the San Lorenzo Valley.
“It’s so devastating that it took this for 1,200 people to say, ‘Yes, let’s do this now,’” says Martin, whose daughter went to school with Josh. “Let’s get this done for real.”