Good Things Come to Those Who Wait, and State Transportation Funding is Coming to Santa Cruz County

As the 20th-century poem by Lady Mary Montgomerie Currie counsels, “Good things come to those who wait.” In the transportation realm, this rings particularly true. Funding and constructing landmark projects requires years of careful planning and so much patience – from both the public and the agencies that eventually construct them. That’s why the recent Active Transportation Program (ATP) Cycle 5 awards funded by the State of California through the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) are particularly sweet for our region. This highly competitive statewide program is the prime source of funding for bike and pedestrian projects statewide, so jurisdictions throughout California jockey for funding from this overly subscribed source.

Perhaps the biggest win for Santa Cruz County from ATP Cycle 5 is the City of Watsonville’s $11.7M award that will build the much-needed bike/pedestrian bridge over Highway 1, connecting students and the entire community to Pajaro Valley High School. For over a decade, the vital need for this bridge has been recognized by local and regional transportation agencies. The school and City have heard countless complaints of pedestrian and bicycle crashes and near-misses on this overly used and narrow corridor. The school sits on the edge of productive and busy agricultural lands that have regular car and truck traffic. In response to these concerns, the City Public Works applied for funding to build the bridge in two previous ATP cycles without success. What was different about this third attempt in ATP Cycle 5 was that a comprehensive public planning process laid the groundwork for a successful application.

But how does this all work?

Ecology Action partnered with the City of Watsonville at multiple key junctures and counseled on the importance of doing the planning work before submitting to this highly competitive program. Together, the City and Ecology Action secured funding for the project’s planning work through a Caltrans Sustainable Planning Grant. The resulting “City of Watsonville Complete Streets to School Plan” examined bike/pedestrian deficiencies at City school sites. The planning work took two years to complete and included hundreds of public comments solicited through meetings, walking audits, and online forums. Together, we documented the problems through photographs, student projects, and parent complaints. The planning effort enlisted the expertise of an outside consultant to recommend improvements at all of the school sites, including Pajaro Valley High. Evidence of the problem and recommendations for improvement documented in the Complete Streets to School Plan were essential to a competitive ATP Cycle 5 application. Not only were we able to propose improvements that would increase safety for Pajaro Valley School students, we also included new green lanes on Green Valley Road, an innovative intersection design at Harkins Slough and Silverleaf, and safety improvements at six feeder school sites.

Ecology Action supported City staff throughout the planning inception, implementation, ATP visioning, and application submittal. Our strong partnership with the City helped amplify this community need and win the funds to bring it to fruition. As a part of this award, EA will provide bike and pedestrian safety education as well as installing a traffic garden at a local Watsonville elementary school. Traffic gardens originated in Europe and are permanent courses to practice safety skills for pedestrians and bikers; this will be a first for our County. This work is done in partnership with Bike Santa Cruz County and County Health Services. We couldn’t be prouder of the award and the positive safety changes it will create for residents of the Watsonville community.

Funding from Watsonville to Santa Cruz

Additionally, the City of Santa Cruz won a $9M award to construct .8 miles of paved, car-free multi-use pathway from the Santa Cruz Wharf roundabout to the intersection of Bay/California (otherwise known as Segment 7) adjacent to the existing active rail line. Elements include the multi-use path, a retaining wall and railings, signs, pedestrian-scale lighting, and fencing to separate the new trail from the existing rail line. It will also fund a first-of-its-kind “vertical” education program at Bay View Elementary School. This pilot program will provide annual walking and biking education to students in EVERY SINGLE GRADE at Bay View Elementary. This grant includes community-involved bike education, family programing, and bike mechanics. Again, Ecology Action partnered on this application submittal and brought the “vertical = every grade” pilot to the table. We will help deliver this exciting new program in partnership with County Health Services and other community partners.

Ecology Action also partnered on two additional applications that may qualify for ATP Cycle 5 augmentation funding. As previously stated, ATP is underfunded and overly subscribed. With the budget surplus, the California Transportation Commission has recommended an infusion of funding for this cycle. After the dust settles with the state budget (no definitive answers will surface until late summer or early fall), we will know if two other high-scoring applications made the cut.

Two More Big Projects Could Receive Funding

Application “Segment 8 & 9” of the Rail Trail was submitted in partnership between the City of Santa Cruz and County Public Works. The project will close a 2.18-mile gap in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network (Rail Trail) between the wharf roundabout in the City of Santa Cruz and 17th Avenue in the County of Santa Cruz by constructing a Class I multi-use trail adjacent to the existing active rail line. Additional elements of the funding include support for a “pop-up” (temporary bike/pedestrian infrastructure to test ideas) and bike encouragement and education for adults. Ecology Action would also provide bike and pedestrian safety education and active transportation programming to Gault Elementary, Live Oak Elementary, Del Mar Elementary, and Shoreline Middle School. Project partners include Bike Santa Cruz County, County Health Services, and other community partners.

The second application was submitted by Santa Cruz Health Services in close partnership with Ecology Action. If funded, this high-scoring application would provide comprehensive Safe Routes to School programing to 12 schools in Watsonville as well as create a robust, community-focused bike and pedestrian program. Program highlights include temporary pop-ups, three traffic gardens for community members to practice safe cycling, senior education, and comprehensive youth bike/pedestrian safety education. This collaborative effort would draw in community-based organizations from Watsonville and fund their involvement in crafting the roll-out of this innovative programing.

So, yes, there is a lot to celebrate – and yet, here we are, waiting again and hoping for more good things to come after laying the groundwork for success. Ecology Action is truly passionate about making our community a safer place to bike and walk, so we are taking careful, thoughtful steps to reach this goal in partnership and friendship with our communities, schools, and public jurisdiction partners. This is the relentless incrementalism we pursue and will continue to pursue for years to come.