ENCINITAS — Leucadia Streetscape’s initial phase is nearing completion and the city is preparing for the project’s next stage to begin as early as this summer.
The Streetscape project, currently in Phase I, has seen construction efforts across a roughly one-mile stretch between A Street and Basil Street. According to city spokesperson Julie Taber, the project is progressing on time and will likely be wrapped up by June 3, or possibly sooner.
“We have the medians done, the asphalt paving and sidewalks are complete, the drainage system is all done, we’ve completed the parking pods and parking areas, and over the next month we’ll be finishing up the roundabout, street lights, crosswalks, landscaping, traffic striping, signage, and also just focusing on general project cleanup,” Taber said.
One of the biggest modifications the project will make is the reduction of Coast Highway 101 from four lanes to two lanes in a two-mile stretch between A Street and La Costa Avenue.
Phase I, which began in January 2021, is expected to cost $7.7 million, per the city website.
City officials believe the project will reduce accidents for all modes of transportation, enhance cyclist mobility and pedestrian access to businesses along Coast Highway and provide a much-needed boost to dated city infrastructure, said Taber.
Construction on the next portion of the project will begin in the early part of the summer and will focus largely on lane restriping in the area approximately between Basil and La Costa Avenue. City officials hope to begin Phase II in earnest in April 2023, which is expected to entail improvements such as the addition of new biking lanes, more parking spaces, and some modifications to the highway median in the Basil/La Costa sector.
However, Phase II is currently in limbo as the city will have to wait for project approvals from the California Coastal Commission and a loan approval of up to $20 million from the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, or IBank, before moving forward.
As Streetscape continues forward, both current and former first responders are continuing to voice concerns about how the finished project could worsen emergency vehicle response times, which have been impacted since the project’s construction efforts began.
In interviews with The Coast News, several first responders said the project and ongoing construction efforts are already hampering accessibility for emergency vehicles — particularly fire trucks and ambulances — heading both north and south along the highway within the project’s current boundaries.
The same persons interviewed told the newspaper that by reducing the 101 down to two lanes and by installing a new traffic circle (roundabout) at the El Portal intersection, Streetscape will substantially constrict existing traffic conditions and thus invariably worsen emergency vehicle response times.
“This project is a public safety hazard,” said David Smith, a 35-year retired firefighter with the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) who lives off of El Portal Street near the Streetscape construction. “You already have what is a historically substandard emergency vehicle response time in this area of Encinitas, and then you’re making it worse by allowing these traffic calming measures to slow down traffic. I mean it’s a comical level of neglect on the city’s part.”
Steve Meiche, a 42-year firefighter also with LAFD, concurred with Smith’s assessment, claiming the existing four-lane highway between La Costa and A Street already struggles to accommodate the existing traffic load.
By going down to two lanes, installing new roundabouts and not designing a large bike lane or shoulder going southbound to allow traffic to yield to emergency vehicles, Meiche said the project is set up to create dangerous public safety scenarios.
“The design should have accommodated a large bike lane where vehicles can pass,” Meiche said. “They failed to design any kind of a passing emergency response lane in this project and the roundabouts are not structured in a way to accommodate ambulance or firefighter traffic. You have a high traffic load in this section of the 101 that’s substantially increased in the past 15 years, so it’s poor planning and it’s poor foresight as to what the plan is when you look at the history of the fire department.”
In 2019, then city Fire Marshal Anita Pupping also voiced her concerns about Streetscape’s impacts on public safety and emergency vehicle response times. Pupping, who spent more than 30 years with the fire department, was dismissed from her position shortly thereafter for reportedly unrelated reasons.
Pupping filed a lawsuit against the city alleging wrongful termination. According to court filings, the California Attorney General’s Office requested documents in August 2019 related to the Streetscape project and sought to interview Pupping as a “subject-matter expert” on the project.
In the lawsuit, Pupping claimed she was removed to prevent her from sharing reservations about the project with the state Attorney General’s Office. However, the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice on Sept. 28, 2021, according to court records.
According to city data obtained by The Coast News via a public records request, the average emergency vehicle response times along the 101 between La Costa Avenue and Encinitas Boulevard have risen very slightly since construction on Streetscape began in early 2021.
In 2021, the average emergency response time was 5 minutes and 30 seconds, compared to 6 minutes and 11 seconds so far this year. By comparison, in 2020, the response time for emergency vehicles traveling along the same 101 corridor was 5 minutes and 17 seconds. In 2019, the average time was 5 minutes and 25 seconds.
Encinitas Fire Cpt. Josh Gordon denied that Streetscape construction holds any real adverse impacts on his department’s response capabilities, and maintained that examples of trucks getting stuck behind 101 traffic remain extremely rare exceptions.
While acknowledging the lack of a shoulder on the southbound side of the highway, Gordon also pointed out that cars are able to pull over for emergency vehicles through gaps in construction cones at thirty-foot intervals.
“Fire trucks getting stuck behind traffic and not getting through, I mean that virtually doesn’t happen,” Gordon said. “If you’re going northbound, there is a turnoff for cars to pull over to the right, and for southbound, cars have the ability to pull over in between the cones, and while there might be some confusion about whether they can pull over or not there is that space between the cones. This just hasn’t been a problem.”
But numerous Encinitas residents dispute this claim.
Spencer Smith, who owns Leucadia Glass near El Portal Street off of Coast Highway 101, said that he’s personally witnessed a significant number of occasions on both the northbound and southbound lanes of the highway where firetrucks were hemmed in by traffic and unable to pass vehicles due to the two-lane constriction.
“Multiple times I’ve seen emergency vehicles stuck behind a bus or stuck behind cars honking and there’s nowhere to pull over because it’s only one lane each way,” Smith said. “It’s ruining the safety of our community in terms of these vehicles getting somewhere in a timely manner. People are going to die if they can’t get services in a timely fashion so they’re really risking our fellow citizens’ lives.”
Former Encinitas Mayor Jerome Stocks agreed with David Smith’s assessment, noting there simply isn’t enough room in the southbound section of Streetscape construction for emergency vehicles to pass safely.
“Restricting a highway to two lanes isn’t necessarily a problem, but what they’ve done is they’ve reduced the footprint of the asphalt to the point where if someone breaks down on this road it’s almost impossible to drive around them without going on the curb,” Stocks said. “That’s a design flaw. What I have a problem with is there not being a shoulder for people to go around you, you want people to be able to safely pass and there has to be enough room. Right now, this has to be a huge public safety concern.”
And according to David Smith, the current response time in the Streetscape corridor is unsatisfactory according to the city’s own public safety standards.
David Smith pointed to a 2017 agenda report presented to the Encinitas City Council wherein fire officials state the “city goal is to make 80% of the calls within five minutes (not including one-minute dispatch process time).”
The retired firefighter also pointed to a California Coastal Commission report released in October 2018 that describes the results of the city’s environmental impact report. The analysis notes the existing “substandard” emergency response times within the project corridor and concluded that traffic calming measures (roundabouts) proposed in Streetscape were anticipated to “worsen the existing substandard response times, resulting in significant indirect effects on public safety.”
However, the report also states these significant effects can be mitigated “below a level of significance” by staging “emergency response vehicles in the project corridor prior to construction of the four roundabouts.”
Gordon said the five-minute response time goal set in 2017 is no longer the current objective, and expressed that the department generally considers response times of up to eight minutes to still be acceptable — nearly three minutes longer than the previous year’s goals.
Mark Muir, a former Encinitas Fire Chief who served on the City Council for seven years, argued that the reduction of the highway from four to two lanes adds to an adverse “cumulative” impact on response times that jeopardizes public safety.
“When you look at it going from four lanes to two lanes, and you try to say the traffic will be the same, logically, it just doesn’t make sense,” Muir said. “There’s a cumulative effect on response times that you have to look at in its totality.” Everything goes back to public safety, and you can’t look at this project and say it won’t impact public safety.”
As a councilman, Muir was the lone vote against the infrastructure proposal in 2018 due to safety impacts and total cost. The former councilman also said that Streetscape’s roundabouts create an additional barrier to emergency traffic that he doesn’t think can be ignored.
“The fact is that this is a real safety issue,” Muir said. “I don’t think it passes the straight-face test to say that reducing the number of lanes, installing roundabouts, and other traffic calming devices won’t slow down traffic and increase emergency response times. And then there’s the time out as well. If somebody has a heart attack, you have to get them to the hospital, which adds to this critical travel time.
When it comes to emergency response times, every second is of vital importance, according to Alex Riley, a former lifeguard with San Diego Fire and Rescue for two decades who ran for Encinitas City Council in 2020.
Riley said even infinitesimal delays caused by Streetscape can easily mean the difference between life and death for those in need of rescue.
“When you’re talking about drowning, when you’re talking about a fire, seconds matter,” Riley said. “To get from point A to point B, emergency vehicles need a place to go and traffic needs a place to move out of the way, and from looking at the schematics for Streetscape, it’s just going to cause delays. I mean their own EIR (environmental impact report) stated as much.”
Riley warned that in any major disaster event along the west side of the 101, such as a major fire or a multicar accident, the combination of a lane diet and several roundabouts could result in delays with potentially dire consequences for victims in need of life-saving measures.
“The roundabouts act as chokepoints, physical barriers be negotiated, and if there’s a situation where there’s a lot of summer traffic backed up and there’s a fire truck behind you and you can’t move forward or to the side going southbound, any way you slice it that’s really bad,” Riley said. “Any accident with multiple injuries you’re looking at multiple ambulances having to get through, and it’s just a nightmare, it’s not how you’re supposed to run public safety. The two things the government is supposed to do is provide public safety and infrastructure, and what Streetscape really does is it jeopardizes both.”
Retired Capt. Larry Giles, of the Encinitas Fire and Marine Safety Department, said that it would be a mistake to blame the highway’s gridlock solely on Streetscape.
Instead, Giles, who retired last July after serving the city as a lifeguard and first responder for more than 30 years, argued that a variety of factors have fed the regional congestion, including exploding population growth in the beach town.
Focusing city resources on key “peak points” where traffic tends to get worst along Coast Highway, such as the stretch from Marchetta to Basil, will be key to ensuring that Streetscape does not further exacerbate a growing issue, Giles said.
“This county will continue to grow so much and it’s going to be a challenge. The response times will definitely be affected by more people using this location and that’ll cause problems with those peak points,” Giles told The Coast News. “Now, the city can work around that by putting special squads in those areas or an ambulance if they felt like they needed to make sure that those response times could stay within what they’re comfortable with, so the council has options to deal with that as the county continues to grow.”
But Giles also agreed the current response times in the Streetscape corridor are unsatisfactory.
“If they’re not meeting that five-minute threshold, there are certainly things they should do to ensure that there are resources in those areas to reduce those longer response times,” Giles said. “Yeah, [Streetscape] is going to exacerbate traffic during peak surge times, but it’s just one piece of that puzzle, and there’s a lot of other factors too that people don’t realize are contributing to that congestion.”
Riley demanded more accountability from city leadership on the issue, arguing that swift action was needed to devote more resources to the thoroughfare to prevent worst-case scenarios from taking place.
“They’ve been talking about it [Streetscape] for two years and they keep brushing these concerns aside,” Riley said. “I mean, I don’t know how you look people in the eye as a City Council and say this is going to make things more dangerous but we want it anyway. If it’s your family member having a heart attack etc., you’re not going to want to hear that your family member died because an ambulance couldn’t get through, and that’s really the bottom line.”