ENCINITAS — Opponents of an overhaul of Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia have drawn comparisons between the project and a similar one in Northern California that some opponents believe stifled evacuation efforts in the devastating Camp fire.
But officials from the town of Paradise, which was virtually destroyed by the wildfire earlier this month, said that the town’s “lane diet” was not the culprit of the gridlock that stifled evacuation efforts at the start of the fast-moving blaze.
Leucadia Streetscape opponents have latched on to a Nov. 20 article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Paradise narrowed its main road by two lanes despite warnings of gridlock during a major wildfire” and are renewing their calls for the city to halt the project, which they said puts the public in danger.
“Many other residents of Leucadia are also strongly opposed to Streetscape and we are continuing to fight against it,” Leucadia resident Linda Adams wrote to The Coast News shortly after The Times published its story. “Now there is tragic evidence of what can happen when a plan like Streetscape is actually implemented.”
Paradise narrowed Skyway, the town’s main road, from four lanes to two in its downtown area in 2014, six years after a county grand jury urged the town to improve evacuation routes after vehicles were gridlocked as people tried to evacuate the town during a major wildfire in 2008.
Town officials said they decided to reduce the lanes as part of an effort to make the road safer for pedestrians and cyclist as well as to boost commerce in the downtown area.
The Camp fire, which started Nov. 8, swept swiftly through the town of 27,000, killing 88 people, charring 153,336 acres and destroying nearly 19,000 structures, including 13,696 single-family homes, 276 apartment buildings, and 528 commercial structures, making it the most devastating fire in state history.
More than 150 people are still missing, according to the latest statistics.
Critics of Encinitas’ plans, which include narrowing Coast Highway 101 to one lane in each direction and installing roundabouts and other traffic calming features between La Costa Avenue and Leucadia Boulevard, said that Paradise officials’ reason for their road diet sound very similar to the ones Encinitas officials have stated in support of the local streetscape.
“It’s a value judgement,” Adams said in a subsequent discussion. “It’s the safety of the people who live in Leucadia, especially west of Coast Highway 101, versus the commercial benefits of a few business owners. We want the city to think of the safety of its residents first.”
Opponents have in the past pointed to a failed lane diet in Playa Del Rey, where the Los Angeles City Council reversed course after resident uproar, as an example of why the city should abandon the local project.
But the concerns there were based on traffic. With the Paradise example, opponents are directly taking aim at whether a lane diet will have tangible public safety impacts.
“This article in the L.A. Times today says it all,” streetscape critic Leah Bissonette wrote to the council in an email on Nov. 21. “This is what you are condemning your residents to if you proceed with slowing PCH through Streetscape. You owe it to us to consider our safety.”
But city officials and others have questioned the comparisons: Paradise is in a heavily forested foothill area prone to wildfires and with only four roads in and out of town. In addition to Coast Highway 101, Leucadia is adjacent to Interstate 5, El Camino Real and Rancho Santa Fe, which all lead out of the community in the event of a wildfire.
Encinitas, especially along the coast — supporters of the streetscape say — is as topographically and environmentally juxtaposed to Paradise as possible.
“Emergency evacuations are difficult in any situation and in Paradise, the raging fire that engulfed that community was tragic,” Encinitas councilman Tony Kranz said. “But comparing North 101 through Leucadia with a community on the edge of the ‘wildland-urban interface’ seems to me to be quite a stretch. When the 101 Streetscape construction is completed, the evacuation plans we have for the neighborhoods west of the 101 will be evaluated and updated as needed to provide the safest routes possible away from danger.”
In Paradise, officials there said that the biggest issue that created the traffic bottleneck during the beginning hours of the Camp fire was people attempting to come into town on Skyway as officials were attempting to evacuate the town by turning the main drag into a one-way street out of town.
Matt Gates, a public information officer with the Paradise Police Department said that any speculation about the cause of the evacuation issues is just that, and that law enforcement and fire officials will detail the actual causes in what is known as an “after action report.”
Gates, however, said that anecdotally, the idea that the city’s lane diet exacerbated the evacuation is misleading.
“The odds of it having impacted negatively that specific evacuation, it’s not true,” Gates said. “And that is because of how the fire played out.”
The Times article also pointed out that it was “far from clear” whether narrowing Skyway worsened the delays in getting out of Paradise.