Pacifica residents and officials are grappling with questions and controversy as they decide whether to alleviate traffic congestion by widening Highway 1 from Sharp Park through Rockaway Beach.
Pacifica has been considering such a project for more than 30 years, but was forced to take a tentative step forward in late June when the city’s staff received a letter from Caltrans informing the city it would need to choose a favored design before the project’s final environmental impact report could be completed.
The City Council voted June 25 to go with a design that includes a landscaped median, which the council felt would be in keeping with its goal of beautifying Pacifica. It also voted to nominate the project for funding under the San Mateo County Transportation Authority’s call for Measure A projects. Neither vote was unanimous, with Councilwoman Sue Digre abstaining and Mayor Pete DeJarnatt voting against the landscaped median, and Digre being the sole dissenter in the decision to pursue funds.
Twenty-four citizens addressed the council, some arguing passionately for the freeway widening, with others dead set against it.
Courtney Conlon, CEO of Pacifica’s Chamber of Commerce, advocated moving forward
"[The City] Council must not support requests for unnecessary delays. It will be very difficult to attract business to Pacifica if we have horrific traffic problems,” she said.
Residents who attended the meeting expressed concern about Caltrans, the timing and the process. Bill Collins argued the project wouldn’t give any traffic relief for at least five years. Peter Loeb completely supported applying for the Measure A funds, but urged the council not to make a decision on whether to include a landscaped median without further public hearings on the issue. Rich Campbell said Caltrans was trying to have Pacifica make a decision before the final impact report is done.
Though Digre and Councilwoman Mary Ann Nihart were on the opposite ends of the vote, both said the situation felt "coerced.”
"When your choice is between a three bean salad and a lethal injection,” Nihart said, "what are you gonna choose?”
Nihart explained Highway 1 is substandard because it doesn’t have shoulders or a median.
"Our rush hour traffic is nonexistent compared to [Highway] 101, that by itself doesn’t drive the change. It’s an issue of accessibility to emergency vehicles and breakdowns ... Caltrans does not build shoulders — they build highways,” she said.
Councilman Len Stone shares Nihart’s concern about the ability of emergency vehicles to navigate Highway 1.
"We know that central highway is the only thing connecting the north and south ends of Pacifica. It’s a big safety issue,” he said. "What we have right now is inadequate. Some people are saying the project is a freeway; it’s not a freeway — it’s an extra lane in each direction.”
Digre, however, has several issues starting with her concern that the project might not be compliant with an order signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008 that all new projects which are vulnerable to sea level rise associated with climate change must be planned in such a way that the expected risks are reduced. Digre also feels pedestrian safety and other options, like improving public transportation, aren’t being discussed enough.
"How many years have we been at this, and we haven’t really had a public forum to discuss it? The pedestrian part isn’t being talked about. It’s already hard enough for pedestrians to get across the highway,” she said. "Furthermore, I’m talking about taking a really serious look at public transportation on the coast. Ride sharing isn’t happening because we don’t have consistent, convenient, reliable public transportation. The main goal is traffic management, not widening freeways.”
She also sympathizes with those who fear the project will fundamentally alter the character their town.
"Caltrans is saying it wouldn’t change our community because there’s already a freeway running through it,” Digre said, "and to me that’s kind of lame, because they’re talking about really widening the freeway, and it’s not even clear what businesses would be affected.”
Though many Pacificans have expressed concerns that businesses along Highway 1, such as Gorilla BBQ and the P-Town Cafe, would have to be relocated, Nihart asserts that this is not the case.
"No matter what you’ve heard, the only two businesses impacted will be Boston Bill’s and the former Indian restaurant next door,” Nihart said.
Though the June vote may have created a sense of urgency among Pacificans who are stridently for or against the project, DeJarnatt said he does not see things moving quickly. In fact, he said it was a campaign issue for him when he ran for council 15 years ago.
"We’re asking for it to be funded, but that’s not the go-ahead. Then the EIR will be finalized and then it comes back to us again. I don’t see anything happening in the near term,” he said. "This process is unbelievably long.”