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Mission Position

[whitespace] Ron Goodman and Debbie Bulger
George Sakkestad

Street Smart: Mission Street Widening Task Force members Ron Goodman and Debbie Bulger envision a road far different than Caltrans' current four-lane highway design.

As the Mission Street Widening Task Force gathers its forces, many members worry that a rigid timeline is being given priority over good planning

By Mary Spicuzza

DRIVING MISSION STREET feels a lot like trying to thread the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle. The mostly two-lane road is a growing nightmare for commuters, tourists and especially for neighbors, who bear the overflow onto nearby streets. In fact, a 1992 traffic study found Mission Street to be the most dangerous stretch of road in Santa Cruz County, averaging some 36 fatal or injury-related accidents per mile each year.

But when it comes to who actually gets a say in the proposed $9.8 million dollar project to fix the problem, those affected most say they are being tuned out.

Mark Taylor is co-owner of Mission Street's Food Bin and The Herb Room as well as president of the Mission Street Business Association. He's been active in the discussions about the redesign of Mission Street, which have dragged on for 14 years, and says he knows a red herring when he sees one.

"The task force is powerless and intended to placate people so that the widening plan can go through as is," says Taylor.

He's talking about the Mission Street Widening Task Force, which was created in May by the Santa Cruz City Council to provide input on Caltrans' proposed design. Critics say the 29-member group's mandate, "To improve the Mission Street Widening Project without altering the time schedule of construction," all but prevents them from suggesting anything other than cosmetic changes.

Many on the task force, made up of area business owners, residents, councilmembers, transportation officials, bicyclists and school administrators, agree with critics like Taylor.

"Caltrans officials are sending the plans off for approval, and contractors will be bidding in a couple of months," says Ron Goodman, a member of bike advocacy group People Power and the lone bicycle interest representative on the task force. "By rushing us like this, we can't possibly resolve key safety and traffic flow issues."

The City Council directive restricts the task force to consideration of issues such as tree planting and protection, safety issues for neighboring schools, street lighting, utility pole relocation, speed control, construction advertising for local businesses, public information and incorporating public art into the project.

With the task force unable to suggest changes that would cause delays in the construction schedule, Goodman sees its mandate as fundamentally flawed. "The task force can't make suggestions on the things that matter most," he says.

The Mission Street expansion plans--which, according to a report by Interim Director of Public Works Christophe Schneiter, are "95 percent complete"--call for easing traffic congestion and improving safety on the stretch of Highway One between Swift and Chestnut streets. It hopes to accomplish this by widening the road from its current two lanes into an undivided highway with two lanes in each direction.

Growing Pains

CALTRANS PROJECT engineer Gene Gonzalo believes a consistent four-lane undivided road will reduce confusion and resulting collisions while expanding the road's automobile capacity. Similarly, city traffic engineer Ron Marquez says current traffic studies indicate two lanes in each direction would greatly ease congestion. But he concedes no study has ever focused on this particular stretch of road.

"There isn't a traffic study for this specific project, but one was done for the entire Westside within the last two years," Marquez says.

Debbie Bulger, a member of the widening task force and the safety advocacy group Mission Pedestrian, takes issue with Marquez's assumption, citing the 1990 National Cooperative Highway Research Program report co-sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration. That report indicates that accident rates more than double whenever a road is converted from two lanes to four. Bulger doesn't believe widening will improve safety for pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists--nor does she see conclusive evidence that widening effectively reduces congestion.

A founding member of Mission Pedestrian, Bulger was active in the group's battle with Caltrans over whether to include crosswalks on the widened Mission Street. Caltrans argued that crosswalks were dangerous to pedestrians and refused to include them in Mission Street plans until last year, when Mission Pedestrian did its own statistical analysis and demonstrated that crosswalks do indeed improve safety.

The developments with Mission Street have moved about as fast as rush-hour traffic on that beleaguered road. In March 1986, the council approved a Mission Street Improvements Action Plan developed after two years of study by a citizen's task force and sent it off to Caltrans. Years of agency planning followed.

Last April, after members of Mission Pedestrian and other community groups had been asking for over a year to see Caltrans' draft plans, the agency finally responded and held an open house at the Civic Auditorium to unveil its plan.

In addition to two lanes in each direction, the plans call for left-turn pockets at six major intersections: Walnut, Laurel, Chestnut, Bay, Almar and Swift streets.

Critics raise concerns that the plans don't include undergrounding of utility wires, bike lanes, crosswalks at every intersection or a center turn lane. Others complain that sidewalks will be reduced to five feet wide, an unsightly sound wall will be included next to Mission Hill Junior High School and up to two dozen protected trees may be cut.

Despite a decade of attempts to include underground utility wires for Pacific Bell, TCI Cable and Pacific Gas and Electric--which would make the street more aesthetically pleasing and safer in the event of an earthquake--the council dropped undergrounding two years ago due to scheduling problems with utility companies. Councilmembers and Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) Executive Director Linda Wilshusen say the only alternative is to delay the project--an option both the council and the commission find unacceptable.

"To delay the project beyond January 1999 won't accomplish its goals," Wilshusen says. "Why wait? We've been talking about this for 25 years."

Councilmember Mike Rotkin agrees that there's no sense in delaying a project he feels is long overdue. Rotkin believes most outstanding issues can be ironed out during construction. He also says undergrounding is out of the question because of the council's commitment to take as little land as possible from Mission Street property owners.

"I doubt anybody would want undergrounding if they understood the consequences for those business owners," Rotkin says, indicating it would mean using eminent domain to close certain businesses.

SCCRTC's Wilshusen adds that limited space and potential hazardous material sites from defunct gas stations along Mission Street make it impossible to include underground utilities in current widening plans.

"It would have been the city's responsibility [to clean up the sites], and we can't take on the liability at this time," Wilshusen says.

Planners also cite limited right-of-way on Mission Street as the cause for the controversial dropping of bike lanes and a center turn lane.

Rush Hours

AT A PACKED SPECIAL City Council meeting May 5, concerns about utility wires, pedestrian and bicycle safety and accident rates on Mission dominated discussion. Many residents, members of the newly formed Mission Street Business Association and representatives of Mission Pedestrian came forward to ask for more time to make changes before construction begins.

"Overwhelming public opinion at the meeting was that the widening as it is now is a horrible project," says bicycle advocate Goodman. "The traffic is 75 percent local residents, but Caltrans is catering to the other 25 percent."

Kari Asmus, a member of Mission Pedestrian, explains that she too has many concerns with the process.

"It doesn't seem like the timeline allows for many changes," Asmus sighs. "The task force's hands have been tied."

Still, Rotkin voices dismay that anyone could see the Mission Street widening as a hurried project.

"It's hard to argue that a plan discussed since 1984 is being rushed," Rotkin laughs. "There's plenty of time to work on this plan. There's plenty of time for change orders. But things like undergrounding and lane changes are simply too late."

According to Rotkin, Wilshusen and numerous other public officials and planners, the current widening plans are a direct product of years of public input, dialogue and endless negotiation.

"There's been so much discussion over the years, but things take so long that people forget about them," says Wilshusen.

But Mission Pedestrian's Asmus, who was involved in early discussions on Mission Street, says that Caltrans' current plan is a radical reworking of the 1986 plan.

"It's like you've worked hard to design your dream home, and the architect comes back 12 years later with totally different floor plans," Asmus says.

The doubtful are not limited to local residents. Even at Caltrans, questions persist.

"I'm concerned. I don't know how they plan to expand with such a limited right-of-way," says Caltrans' Oakland-based public relations representative, Jeff Weiss. Although Weiss has been handling public relations for the Mission Street project, he admits he made his first visit to the site less than a month ago.

Vision Quest

CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS have stated many times they would love to see underground utilities and a spiffier Mission Street, but not if it means losing funding and delaying the project for an indefinite future date.

"Are we prepared to leave Mission in the mess it's in for another six years?" Rotkin asks. (Six years is the next opportunity to appeal for state funding.)

Caltrans officials have made it clear that any project, if left to languish too long, risks having its budget diverted elsewhere. But the threat to funding may be exaggerated, and there is no indication that there is any immediate threat to the Mission Street project, as suggested by the task force's mandate.

"There's always a threat of losing funding," says Weiss, "but it's difficult to quantify. There's no deadline."

"A couple of years ago we were in danger," says Wilshusen, "but now we're not at risk for losing funding from the state."

Unsubstantiated fears of a cash cut-off aren't deterring some task force members from trying to expand their mandate.

"You're going to do two years of construction on the ugliest street in town, and it's just going to get uglier," says task force member Michael Bates, who is also chair of the Historic Preservation Commission. "I have trouble in my heart moving forward when I know it's wrong."

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From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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