Highway 1 widening proposal in Pacifica remains contentious

Proponents of a plan to widen part of state Highway 1 appeared to suffer a setback when Pacifica’s Planning Commission and City Council recently changed some wording in the town’s Capital Improvement Program document.

While the changes solidify the city’s commitment to studying alternatives to widening the highway, officials note that all options are still on the table.

Known as the Calera Parkway Project, the plan put forth by Caltrans, the state transit agency, aims to address traffic congestion by widening a 1.3-mile stretch of Highway 1 from Pacifica’s Sharp Park to Rockaway Beach neighborhoods. The highway currently has two southbound and two northbound lanes, and the project would add an additional lane in each direction.

Supporters decry the increasingly long commutes residents have been experiencing. Proponents also claim the rush hour bottlenecks could delay first responders during emergencies, because that section of Highway 1 lacks adequate shoulders, thus making it difficult for motorists to get out of the way of emergency vehicles.

Opponents claim the project would transform the affected section of Highway 1 into a “speedway” inconsistent with Pacifica’s small-town nature. They further argue that the project would not significantly reduce congestion, and they want extensive public discussion of several proposed alternatives.

These concerns were brought into focus as the commission prepared to approve the city’s new Capital Improvement Program, said Planning Commission Chair Richard Campbell. He explained that a line item allocating about $6,000 to study the project and its possible alternatives was seen as problematic by some commissioners, because its title implied that the funds were only for studying the project and not proposed alternatives.

The Planning Commission referred the matter to the City Council, which voted unanimously to change the line item’s wording so its title now refers to a “Highway 1 Planning Project,” as opposed to specifically limiting itself to the Calera Parkway Project.

Campbell explained that the item allocates resources so city staff can host town-hall-style meetings in which residents and officials can explore the pros and cons of all possible alternatives, including the original Caltrans project.

Some alternatives that the project’s detractors have advocated for include staggering school start times, installing timed traffic lights, building a frontage road, or even implementing a movable lane that could switch directions depending on traffic patterns.

None of the proposed alternatives would provide the same congestion relief promised by the Caltrans project, said Fix Pacifica blog co-founder Steve Sinai. In a previous interview with the San Francisco Examiner, he noted that all of the proposed alternatives had already been studied by Caltrans, which rejected them because they are “ineffective, too expensive or too disruptive.”

But when it comes to timed traffic lights, a lot has changed since Caltrans performed those studies, said Mayor Pro Tem Sue Digre. So much so, she said, that the conversation is no longer about synchronized lights.

Companies like Siemens and Rhythm Engineering have recently demonstrated “smart” traffic light systems whose controls use real-time GPS data to manage traffic flows, Digre said, and installing such a system would be far less disruptive than widening the highway.
San Ramon is among the cities where Rhythm Engineering’s InSync system has been installed, and the company claims a 27 percent improvement in commute times there.

But project supporter Mark Stechbart said he is not impressed with the proposed alternatives, and he claimed the altered language in the Capital Improvement Program is meaningless.

“The name change is a distinction without a difference,” Stechbart said. “The only way to move existing commuter and tourist traffic through this historic bottleneck is to add one lane in each direction, thus getting turning traffic out of the north-south traffic bore.”

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