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June 14-21, 2006

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Gridlock!

Fred Keeley searches for consensus on county transportation issues

By Chandler Harris


The multipurpose room at Mission Hill Middle School in Santa Cruz last Wednesday was much like Highway 1 on an average day--many people in a small area stuffed close together waiting for something to happen. And many of these people were in fact fed up with the Highway 1 traffic dilemma and were there to voice complaints and their own solutions for Santa Cruz County's transportation problems. The event was part of the countywide emergency task force sponsored by the Regional Transportation Commission, which is trying desperately to come up with a transportation solution Santa Cruz residents can agree on. After all, Santa Cruz County voters soundly rejected the last transportation plan pushed onto the ballot in 2004, Measure J, which would have widened Highway 1 among other transportation improvements.

Now, with a temporary Highway 1 widening measure under way and traffic backups on the norm, Fred Keeley, the convener of the meeting, stood before the crowd at the school auditorium and explained that the meeting was part of an uphill climb to help Santa Cruz transit problems, the first phase figuring out what Santa Cruz residents want to do about the problem.

"This is intended to really take a look as a community throughout the county at what kinds of problems we have," said Keeley. "Before we get to issues of debating whether or not to widen Highway 1, or buy a rail or have hot air ballons or whatever it may be, let's have a conversation about what problems we are trying to solve."

Keeley, who's blessed with the long-winded oratory of a seasoned politician--he served in the state Assembly for six years--said that Santa Cruz had already reached a "crisis point" of traffic congestion. "I think this community has suffered from an underinvestment in transportation and transit, but mostly it has suffered from a lack of an agreement in the community," he said.

The group of about 100 people brainstormed problems and solutions to Santa Cruz's transit woes. Some of the more creative ideas being thrown around by attendees were hitchhiker stations or "casual carpooling," rail trail, light rail, personal rapid transit pods, banning cars from UCSC, solar electric ultra light passenger rail and pedestrian bridges.

At one table Tom Pistole, a self-proclaimed "commuter at large" who goes from midcounty to UCSC every day, supports a widening of Highway 1, but also sees other alternatives. "There needs to be some incentive to get people out of their cars, and I think the price of gas is pushing people," Pistole said. "People are starting to look at other options. I myself bought a Vespa."

At the same table, county Supervisor Jan Beautz listened to complaints over traffic, potholes, scary intersections and ideas for a rail system. Beautz, who lives in and represents midcounty, was not encouraged by the turnout, since about half of the people were transportation committee members. A vocal advocate for the widening of Highway 1, Beautz believes that traffic in Santa Cruz is comparable to larger cities in California.

"I'm in favor of widening Highway 1," Beautz said. "I think it's necessary. It was built in the '50s and the capacity has increased and it's unrealistic to think it works. I think eventually it will reach a crisis point."

Yet widening Highway 1 is a contentious issue, as the Regional Transportation Commission rediscovered last April, when a representative traveled to Sacramento to request funds for a third lane on Highway 1 between Morrissey Boulevard and Soquel Avenue. Funds for the widening were not approved, possibly because members of People Power and other Santa Cruz residents took the trek to Sacramento to speak out in opposition to the funding.

The workshop marked the end of the project's first phase. The next will take place in the fall and focus on narrowing down projects and determining how to get financing. Then Keeley will be drawing up a plan and submitting it for approval.

Overall the meeting was well attended and enthusiastic, Keeley said, holding a proposal for a solar electric ultra light passenger rail somebody had given him. Even so, Keeley had the look of a commuter with a long drive ahead of him. "We're a quarter of the way through and about a year from now, I'll submit plan to the transportation commission."


Santa Cruz County residents can add their feedback by going to the People Power website at www.peoplepowersc.org.


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