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10.31.07

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Nūz: As the countdown begins on sending a transportation tax to the ballot, a key task force remains hung up on—you guessed it—the widening of Highway One.

Road Warriors
Members of the Transportation Funding Task Force (TFTF) had plenty to digest at their Oct. 29 meeting. It was the first time the group had come together since the Oct. 19 release of a survey of 600 voters about a half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects. Not surprisingly, a sticking point emerged over the course of the evening: the widening of Highway One. Looks like the "Kumbaya" moment between the pro- and anti-widening camps, which blame each other for the failure of the last attempted transportation tax, is still a ways off.

After a presentation of the survey results, which showed that a majority of voters want both improvements to existing car-based infrastructure and more money for alternatives like train service, the 70 members of the task force got down to the serious business of debating the "proposed mobility plan" written up by Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) staff.

The plan calls for $300 million to be spent on widening and improving Highway One, $50 million to establish the bare bones of train service, and $125 million for improving bus service. Another $125 million would go to road repair, bike lanes and the like. In all, the widening of Highway One would account for half the money spent.

Being that this was the task force's second-to-last meeting, at least a few members advocated adopting the plan as it stood. These advocates, including Virginia Johnson of Ecology Action, believed the mobility plan clearly reflected the will of the voters as determined by the survey.

"We have to bundle all these projects together in order to get this to pass," she said, appealing to pragmatism. Paul Elerick of the Campaign for Sensible Transportation saw things differently. He doesn't buy into the idea that just because voters want to improve Highway One they necessarily want to have it widened. He and others in his group instead propose allocating limited funding toward merge lanes at on and off ramps, installing metering lights, studying which parts of the road are particularly congested and working on those, and increasing carpool programs. Under his group's plan, this would bring the cost of Highway One construction down to a paltry $75 million.

This, says Elerick, would make the plan truly balanced, which is what the surveyed voters wanted. It's coming down to the wire. The last meeting of the TFTF will be Nov. 14, and by then the members will have to make a decision: either approve the proposed mobility plan as it stands and let the RTC start preparing a ballot measure, approve an amended version, or walk away empty-handed.

This urgency seemed more than apparent to all in attendance, but many in the alternative transportation camp framed the TFTF mandate in the larger context of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They insisted their ability to just say no to a wider Highway One and instead fund alternatives would be greatly appreciated over the next 30 years. This view was expressed by many, including Micah Posner of People Power. They even had shirts. They say: Widening Highway One = Global Warming.

"People use their cars because they don't have a choice," Posner says. "Expanding car infrastructure will just expand our dependency on cars."

Oddly, no one in attendance publicly defended the widening of Highway One in explicit terms. Any arguments for keeping the widening in the plan were expressed as a desire to get the plan out to the voters without further delay. Neither the global warming issue nor the distinction between improving and widening the highway was addressed publicly by the pro-widening camp. That, Nu_z is sure, will change when the negotiations continue, and end, on Nov 14.

To catch the all-night negotiation session, or just to chip in your two cents, attend the final TFTF meeting on Wed., Nov. 14 at 6:30pm at Del Mar Elementary School, 1959 Merrill St., Santa Cruz.

Something We Said?

The hankies are a-fluttering after last week's announcement that Santa Cruz Planning Director Greg Larson is leaving in January to take the job of city manager in Los Gatos. Larson, who became the city's top planner in summer 2006, will have been at his job just 18 months when he leaves. Larson, who presided over the later stages of the General Plan update process, gets kudos for being that all-too-rare kind of bureaucrat: the kind who sees the big picture and can explain it to the peeps—and who cares what the little people actually think.

"He really opened up the doors of the planning department," raves Santa Cruz Neighbors founder Deborah Elston. "One perfect example that's coming up is the Ocean Street Area plan. Usually the city has some ideas and plans and then they start meeting with the neighbors. There's no plans here. The neighbors are going to be in from the very beginning. And that's a new concept here in town."

Larson, who is far too modest to brag about his accomplishments, says he hopes the General Plan process solidified a few key ideas: (1) that economic development is vital to the city's future; (2) that climate change is serious enough to plan for; (3) that the arts should be planned into the city's future; and (4) that neighborhood character should be preserved.

Of these, the issue that troubles Larson the most as he heads for the door (though he'll continue living here) is the matter of economic development. "The thing I'm worried about for this community is, given the housing market in Silicon Valley and the rental housing market caused by the university, I worry about the city losing its industrial and commercial base as property owners think there's bigger bucks to be made by converting that property to housing. And that's a very short-term gain to the community."

Larson adds that people need to adjust their ideas about housing to new economic realities. "The starter home for the next generation is not a single-family home, it's a condominium or townhome," he says. "And we're trying to make those accessible for new first-time homeowners" with the building of condos downtown.

Can a public servant construct a legacy in just a year and a half? Sure, if the timing is right. Arts Commissioner Linda Bixby says, "The last [General Plan] arts element [in 1987] was quite small—it was basically a couple of sentences about how we wanted to have a museum in town. We now have it addressing arts education, goals for the performance venues we have, ways of creating public spaces for performance art and doing spontaneous art. "I'm sick that Greg Larson is leaving."

Influencing People

If citation is the highest form of academic flattery, UCSC's Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department has more admirers than most. A recent survey by Michigan Technological University of more than 300 educational institutions found UCSC to be the fourth most-cited school in conservation biology research.

Department Chair Peter Raimondi explained to Nu_z that conservation biology is the study of ecological systems—both the value of healthy, intact systems and how systems are compromised by pollution, habitat pressure, etc. What makes this recognition especially sweet is that conservation biology didn't always get much respect from academics; many thought of it as "sort of a feeling you had about nature," Raimondi says. It was left to nongovernmental organizations like Environmental Defense to take up the cause."It has had almost a touchy-feely aura about it that in some ways was frowned upon, even though there is clearly an academic and intellectual basis for it," Raimondi says, adding that this is another way in which UCSC has been at the forefront of trends; five years ago the biology department had an amicable split, with the molecular biologists forming one department and the ecologists—including the conservation biologists—forming another. "Our university has been at the forefront of recognizing the value of this," Raimondi says.


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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