In California as well as the U.S., greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are going up instead of down. People are driving more. This outweighs improvements in vehicle efficiency. Does this reflect a moral failing? Are more people deciding to drive rather than walk to close destinations? Or are there systemic reasons? Evidence suggests the increase in vehicle miles traveled is due to poor land-use planning, as well as high housing prices.
In Santa Cruz County, the high cost of housing near job centers is causing longer commutes, according to UCSC commute studies. Poor land-use planning is exemplified by the application to locate a large medical office building in Live Oak, across Highway 1 from Sutter Hospital and Dominican. It’s a mile to the nearest bus stop on Capitola Road. This location makes a transit commute impractical, forcing up transportation costs for employees who drive.
In recognition of its auto-dependent location, the plan calls for a 730 space parking garage, becoming the largest garage in the county, surpassing the 500-space garage at UCSC.
A far better location for the facility would be on the other side of the highway: the 6.2-acre vacant lot at the corner of Soquel Dr. and Thurber Lane, a block from Dominican Hospital. This location has the highest frequency transit service outside of the Downtown-to-UCSC route. The county recently won a grant for transit, bike and pedestrian improvements on Soquel Drive. This includes bus prioritization at 23 traffic signals between La Fonda Avenue and State Park Drive, protected bike lanes, and sidewalk and crosswalk improvements.
Though the Draft Environmental Impact Report for this project does not mention Kaiser, it is no secret that Kaiser is the prospective tenant for this building. The Draft EIR makes a remarkable claim. In spite of its massive parking structure and location in a transit desert, the EIR claims that the new facility will result in a net reduction in vehicle miles traveled. The EIR figures that Kaiser patients who would have traveled out of the county for appointments will now be staying local. The problem with this logic is that there is no proposed condition on this project that limits tenancy to Kaiser. Further, it cannot be assumed that a Kaiser tenant would not expand its membership based upon its increased service capacity in Santa Cruz County.
The possibility that the future tenant would be Kaiser does not absolve the EIR from its obligation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to examine an alternative to the project that would have lower environmental impact. Incredibly, the EIR minimizes the benefit of locating the facility on Soquel Drive, a major transit corridor: “Transit use for medical services would be minimal.”
Our county leaders should be able to make a good decision without a community group resorting to a lawsuit. Will our Board of Supervisors approve a project that violates the General Plan policy: “Encourage … land use patterns which reduce urban sprawl and encourage the reduction of vehicle miles traveled per person”?
Rick Longinotti | Co-chair, Campaign for Sustainable Transportation
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