Caltrans is launching an immediate study of a 1-mile stretch of Highway 9, including the shoulder where 22-year-old Josh Howard was struck and killed by a motorist earlier this year.
On the evening of Feb. 21, driver Jeremy Shreves drifted over a solid white line into the narrow shoulder where Howard was walking, according to a report released last week by the California Highway Patrol (CHP).
The pending analysis from Caltrans will look at possible safety improvements, including narrowing the highway’s lanes and pushing back retaining walls to create more space for pedestrians and bicyclists, according to Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) Senior Transportation Planner Rachel Moriconi.
Officials ordered the analysis at an April 18 meeting attended by Assemblymember Mark Stone and 5th District Supervisor Bruce McPherson, along with representatives from the RTC, Caltrans, the San Lorenzo Valley School District, the California Highway Patrol, and Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works.
Congressmember Anna Eshoo and Congressmember Jimmy Panetta also briefly attended the meeting before having to step out.
“The elected officials made it clear Thursday they strongly believe the community deserves an immediate response to the threats posed by the corridor, and they expect tangible responses as soon as possible,” says J.M. Brown, an analyst in McPherson’s office.
Though it may be a step forward, the announcement has rankled members of the San Lorenzo Valley community, many of whom have demanded safety improvements along the Highway 9 corridor for more than a decade.
When 22-year-old Josh was struck and killed walking along the southbound shoulder of Highway 9 during rush hour in Felton, community members launched an online petition, reigniting a long-simmering, emotional issue among residents of Felton and the greater San Lorenzo Valley.
The petition, which has garnered nearly 1,500 signatures and 400 comments, notes that community members surveyed for the RTC’s Draft Highway 9/San Lorenzo Valley Complete Streets Corridor Plan overwhelmingly identified pedestrian and cyclist safety between the San Lorenzo Valley school campuses and downtown Felton as a top priority.
At the April 18 meeting, Assemblymember Stone and Supervisor McPherson echoed their constituents’ concerns, according to those with knowledge of the discussion, and they demanded Caltrans immediately identify and implement temporary steps to improve the one-mile stretch of highway where Josh died.
Josh’s mom, Kelley Howard, 41, of Felton, is gratified to see some progress toward making Highway 9 safer. But promises of an analysis or temporary fix ring hollow in the wake of her son’s death.
“I think that’s a start. Not to sound unappreciative, but actions speak louder than words. The community has been demanding safety along the Highway 9 corridor for 11 years,” Kelley says.
There are significant obstacles to any plan, large or small, Moriconi says. Narrowing the highway’s lanes will negatively affect the ability of larger vehicles, such as fire engines and logging trucks that use the road on a daily basis, to maneuver. In addition, moving retaining walls is expensive. Even seemingly easy fixes, like additional signage, can be problematic, as more signs sometimes mean more distracted drivers.
“Caltrans knows this is a community priority and are looking at all the data, but they don’t want to do anything that has unintended consequences. If there was a quick fix, this would have been done decades ago,” Moriconi says.
Money, of course, is an issue. Although partially funded by Measure D, which voters approved in 2016, the project would rely on the state’s Active Transportation Program, which is supported by gas taxes. That fund is not as strong as it once was, despite a recent gas tax increase.
“It’s now up to Caltrans, the RTC, and the county to work together, leverage appropriate funding and ensure the safety of this corridor,” says Assemblymember Stone in a statement.
While Caltrans’ analysis may result in a temporary fix to the segment of highway used by students, significant safety improvements to the entire 18-mile San Lorenzo Valley corridor are still years away.
In an April 16 letter addressed to RTC Executive Director Guy Preston, Caltrans Deputy District Director Aileen Loe said Caltrans will begin work on a scoping document for pavement preservation along the San Lorenzo Valley corridor this summer. Improvements, she wrote, would be funded in the 2022 State Highway Operations and Preservation Program.
As a result of this timetable, Kelley fears that another San Lorenzo Valley mother may have to live through the pain of losing a child before planners ensure the corridor’s safety.
“There are a lot of bad spots along Highway 9. Kids are in danger daily. I still see kids taking the path where my son was killed. I’m grateful that no one else has been hurt or killed, but I’m also surprised,” Kelley says.
Kelley is also concerned that Jeremy Shreves, 47, of Boulder Creek, remains free and behind the wheel after killing her son with his 2000 Toyota 4-Runner.
Josh, a hard-working, happy-go-lucky young man on the milder end of the autism spectrum, attended classes at Cabrillo College and held down jobs at two pizza parlors and Castelli’s Deli. He was walking home from an eight-hour shift at the latter when he was killed.
Like Josh, Shreves had just finished a long day of work. He was headed to Safeway in Felton when the accident occurred, according to the CHP incident report.
At the time, Shreves contended he was only traveling 20 mph when he hit Josh. However, his passenger, Bean Bourn, told investigators that Shreves had been traveling 30 to 35 mph.
According to Bourn’s comments, Shreves inexplicably drifted over the solid white line to where Josh was walking along a roughly three-foot shoulder abutted by a sheer concrete retaining wall.
As Bourn yelled, “Whoa, Whoa!”, the Toyota strayed 1-to-2 feet over the solid white line and struck Josh from behind.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has recommended a misdemeanor charge of gross vehicular manslaughter to the District Attorney’s Office, which has yet to assign a specific attorney to the case.
“From what I understand, they’re not considering it as gross negligence, which would be a felony. I don’t really understand that. He has a long criminal history. He admitted to drinking and smoking pot on the day the accident occurred,” Kelley says. “It boggles the mind.”
Shreves’ criminal history in Santa Cruz County dates back to 1995. It includes a six-month jail sentence for felony burglary and multiple vandalism and drug charges. At the time of the accident, he admitted to the investigating officer that he had drank a beer earlier in the day and smoked marijuana at lunch. However, a field sobriety test indicated he was sober when he struck Josh.
Shreves, who did not respond to an interview request, submitted to a blood test at a hospital after the incident. Results from that test have not been released.
While she waits for the D.A. to address the case, Kelley hopes tangible changes address the stretch of road where her son lost his life. At the very least, she suggests redirecting students through Clearview Place, which is closed to traffic, to avoid the dangerous stretch of highway.
But no amount of highway safety improvements will truly console the grieving mother.
“In the end, nothing will be enough, of course,” Kelley says. “Nothing will bring my baby home.”
Update 4/23/2019 11:20 a.m.: A previous version of this story misreported Kelley Howard’s age.