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Caltrans Conundrum: Calera Parkway Project Too Big to Fail?

Comparing Coast Road Improvements: Rumbling Along Highway 1

By Anneliese Agren, Special to Riptide

Up and down the California coast, towns are reshaping their sections of the coast road due to traffic and safety concerns. Projects that work well are those where a community participates in roadway design. 

When designing a road, there is a cart-and-horse conundrum to resolve. The horse should be citizens pulling the cart full of ideas to be made into a road project proposal. 

But in the case of the City of Pacifica and its Calera Parkway Project, we have a chicken-and-egg quandary:  Which came first, Pacificans’ involvement or Caltrans’ Environmental Impact Report (EIR)?

The City of Pacifica, in collaboration with Caltrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA), seeks to widen a congested 1.3-mile section of Highway 1 (Calera Parkway) by adding one lane in each direction, increasing the existing four-lane roadway to six lanes. There is no other design proposal for the community to review.

The City of Pacifica says that it now cannot host a series of meetings (of which none were calendared) about the already-designed Caltrans/SMCTA project for Calera Parkway, due to a lawsuit filed against Caltrans by Pacificans for a Scenic Coast. The suit’s Prayer requests that the EIR neither be certified nor approved, that Caltrans comply with CEQA by providing an adequate EIR, and that an injunction be issued against furthering the project as designed.

Pacifica’s Transportation section of its General Plan states that “[California] State Route 1 has AADT [Annual Average Daily Traffic] of approximately 45,500 vehicles south of the Sharp Park Road interchange including 4,000 during the peak hour, and approximately 32,000 vehicles north of the Sharp Park Road inter- change including 2,800 during the peak hour. ... The peak-period travel times are northbound between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., then southbound between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m." 

Caltrans’ Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) says the proposed project’s purpose is “to improve traffic operations by decreasing traffic congestion and improving peak-period travel times.” If no improvements are undertaken, the FEIR warns, then in 2035, the traffic projections forecast that the peak-period backup will increase from the current 1.15 miles now to 2.28 miles then. The last time traffic improvements were undertaken was 48 years ago, in 1965, when this section of roadway was widened from two lanes to four.

Santa Cruz's freeway-ization of Highway 1 involves "improvements" and lane additions constructed from the fishhook southward, but there still are traffic issues.

In San Diego County, the City of Encinitas is also improving its stretch of the coast road, but it seeks to reduce the current four lanes to three. The towns along the improvement corridor (Encinitas, Leucadia, and Solana Beach) want to slow down traffic, improve safety, enhance the beauty of their towns through landscaping of sidewalks and medians, improve parking, and increase pedestrian traffic. 

AADT along this part of California's coast road (signed as Highway 101) exceeds 19,000 vehicles and is regularly used by emergency response vehicles and citizens up and down the coast, as the road provides direct access to beaches, businesses, and homes.

Bicycle lanes, called “sharrows,” will be added to each northbound and southbound lane. Foot traffic will increase, improving access for disabled persons, along with widened sidewalks and seating areas. Reverse-angle parking will improve safety by allowing drivers to pull out of parking spaces, rather than backing up into traffic.

Encinitas boasts that its four workshops and open-house presentations spanned two years to arrive at a community-designed highway improvement plan. Sessions were held “to receive citizen input in developing the project design.”

Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) runs through the City of Malibu. PCH is a four-lane road with speed limits allowing from 45 to 55 miles per hour over its 21-mile stretch along the coast. Although Malibu reports a population of less than half of Pacifica’s, the Traffic Safety Evaluation reports that AADT for this area of the coast road ranges from 29,000 to 53,000 vehicles, but traffic can exceed 100,000 vehicles on a hot, sunny day as the masses travel to Malibu to enjoy its beaches.

After several fatalities caused by motorists, Malibu citizens and their City Council are discussing a Pacific Coast Highway Safety Study to analyze how best to accommodate pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic.  No decisions have been made yet, but slowing down traffic is a priority. Safety Study discussions cover lessening car-dominated use of the road, adding bike lanes and crosswalks, and improving access for disabled persons.

Malibu has hosted eight public meetings over the past two years, and has provided an online survey to solicit suggestions on how to improve PCH safety. Public participation is defined by the City of Malibu as a way to identify and prioritize recommended solutions presented in the Safety Study.

Pacifica's coast road improvement efforts differ from those of Santa Cruz, Malibu, and Encinitas, as do the ways the cities engage the public for feedback. Public participation in Pacifica’s proposed improvement plan began with public meetings to review Caltrans’ draft EIR. Neither Encinitas nor Malibu presented a draft EIR as a first step to determining highway improvements.  

Perhaps the difference in Pacifica stems from the agency that leads the discussion on the Calera Parkway Project: SMCTA. If Pacifica, as a community, were to lead the highway improvement discussion, then Pacifica City Council could liaise with SMCTA and Caltrans to prepare a new DEIR.

If the City of Pacifica had hosted meetings initially to solicit public feedback on how to improve Calera Parkway, or had listened to the many times that citizens had spoken out, rather than soliciting a freeway plan to educate citizens for a "yes" vote, then a community-designed project would have moved forward.

(Anneliese Agren lives on the coast near the Santa Cruz County line and occasionally drives up Highway 1 through Devil's Slide Tunnel and Pacifica. She has been studying coast road improvements for six-plus years and is writing a book on the subject. You can reach her on Twitter @coastroad)


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"There is no other design proposal for the community to review."

That's because the city never shared any information with the public, never had hearings, never considered alternatives to this boondoggle of a project. The city is a project sponsor and owner -- yet it not only has nothing to say about it, it does not want the public making any comments either.

I've only lived here 12 years, but I fail to see why it's such a big problem. What's the big deal with building in an extra 10-15 minutes for your commute when you move to Linda Mar or points south? If you already live here, you're used to it, right? Why do we need it? Why did you move to the coast and expect commute speeds like 280? It's the small-town vibe that attracted you here, so why change it just so you can save a little time? What do you want Pacifica to be?

That is great, but Pacifica has zero money and zero ability to do any of the above things.

"In San Diego County, the City of Encinitas is also improving its stretch of the coast road, but it seeks to reduce the current four lanes to three. The towns along the improvement corridor (Encinitas, Leucadia, and Solana Beach) want to slow down traffic, improve safety, enhance the beauty of their towns through landscaping of sidewalks and medians, improve parking, and increase pedestrian traffic."

What a concept.

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