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[whitespace] Mountain residents get break with stickers for Highway 17

Los Gatos--Mountain residents normally turned away with everyone else when Highway 17 is closed should be able to get past the roadblocks in the future, thanks to new windshield stickers mailed out last week by Assemblyman Jim Cunneen's office. Caltrans is installing new warning signs on the highway that should help out, too.

Cunneen's staff sent 6,700 stickers to mountain residents in the 95033 and 95044 ZIP codes last week, with one sticker per car going out to residents who registered their vehicle at addresses in those ZIP codes before Jan. 1, 1999.

The idea for the stickers came up last year at town hall meetings that Cunneen held with mountain residents, who complained that closings cut them off from their homes and families.

Two of the worst traffic jams came in April 1998, when CHP officers shot and killed a Pittsburg man who had led police on a high-speed chase through the West Valley. Three days later, police pulled over a Fremont man who later admitted to killing his wife and dumping her body along Highway 17 at the summit. The highway was also closed to commute traffic for months after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The new window stickers will let officers wave through mountain residents without having to stop motorists and look at individual driver's licenses. It's still up to the CHP, however, whether to let anyone through a roadblock.

The CHP also says motorists with stickers still have to obey the California Vehicle Code, and that in the event of a backup, nobody is allowed to drive on the shoulder or median to get around traffic. Mountain residents don't have to have the sticker affixed to their cars, but officials say the stickers aren't transferable.

Cunneen's office worked out the system with Capt. Jim Baker of the CHP's San Jose office, and CHP officers have all been briefed on the new stickers.

The stickers only work for roadblocks on southbound Highway 17, Hines says, and aren't applicable to mountain residents trying to get past roadblocks on northbound Highway 17 in Santa Cruz County. Stickers aren't available to Santa Cruz County residents.

Cunneen paid for the stickers (at 8 cents each) out of his own campaign pocket, and the Assembly Rules Committee picked up the tab for the bulk mailing.

Hines says Cunneen's office is the first in the state to work out a solution like the sticker program.

The stickers don't have an expiration date, so they're good as long as mountain residents can hang on to them.

In addition to the stickers, parents whose children attend Lexington School should be able to get information more quickly in the event of a major incident on the highway. As part of the sticker program, Cunneen's staff brokered a deal to keep contact lines open with the CHP in an emergency. Parents worried about getting to the school, located on Old Santa Cruz Highway, will now be able to get information on conditions by calling the school.

For more information on the program, mountain residents can call Cunneen's office at (408) 369-8170. Residents who registered their cars in the area after the beginning of this year may request a sticker by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope and a copy of their vehicle registration (with a mountain address) to Cunneen's office at 901 Campisi Way, Suite 300, Campbell, 95008.

Once all the kinks in the program are ironed out, Hines says, it will be taken over by the Mountain Network News.

Caltrans is also installing overhead changeable message signs on southbound Highway 17 that will warn motorists of closures and traffic tie-ups on the disaster-prone road.

The signs will be controlled by the Caltrans Traffic Management Center at the Bay Area district office in Oakland, where employees will keep an eye on the highway via remote video cameras or from traffic management teams on the scene.

A changeable message sign is being installed over Highway 17 where the S. Santa Cruz Avenue onramp joins the roadway. Caltrans construction crews are making the necessary preparations now, but Caltrans says the sign won't be up and running until May or June of next year. The $88,000 sign is being redirected from another Bay Area location, which cuts down considerably on the usual $250,000 cost for a new sign.

Another smaller sign is being installed on southbound Highway 17 at Lark Avenue. That sign will be remotely activated (also by the Oakland office) and will have a fixed message telling motorists to tune into an emergency radio station.
Jeff Kearns

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Web extra to the September 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro.

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