A massive makeover of Coast Highway 101 through Leucadia, a project that's divided the community for years, is headed to the California Coastal Commission.
The Encinitas City Council March 21 voted to certify environmental documents for the Leucadia Streetscape project, which would add up to six traffic circle roundabouts along a 2.5-mile stretch of the coastal highway from La Costa Avenue to A Street and eliminate a vehicle lane in each direction along much of the route.
Proponents highlight the project's many benefits for pedestrians and cyclists, including new sidewalks along the west side of the roadway, striped crosswalks, buffered bike lanes in each direction and a decomposed granite pathway between the roadway and the railroad tracks to the east.
Opponents focus on the roundabouts, saying they're likely to make the already vehicle-congested roadway an absolute nightmare.
Those divisions were evident once again March 21. Before they voted, council members heard from 41 public speakers -- 25 of them proponents, 13 opponents and three undecided.
The council split itself over the plans, voting 4-1, with Councilman Mark Muir opposed, to endorse the project's Environmental Impact Report. Members of the council majority praised Streetscape as a project that put people first and cars second.
"It's time for us to take back our roads," said Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, who lives in Leucadia west of the highway, as she described why she was supporting the plans.
Councilman Tony Kranz, who lives in Leucadia east of Coast Highway, said he thinks the project may actually improve vehicle traffic conditions because the roundabouts will keep vehicles moving, unlike the existing stop signs along the route.
"I don't believe we're going to have Carmageddon," he said.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who lives in Cardiff, said the project would encourage people to walk instead of using their cars, mentioning that people discover each year during the Taste of Leucadia food fest just how un-walkable the area is.
But Muir, who lives in New Encinitas, said the council majority was ignoring reality in favor of a wish that people walk to their destinations.
"The reality is people are in cars," he said, adding that the changes to Coast Highway will simply push traffic congestion onto the surrounding streets.
He said he could only support Streetscape if the proposed roundabouts were eliminated -- a position shared by many project opponents.
Doug Fiske, who has lived in Encinitas since 1963, said everybody wants a "dressing up" of Leucadia's part of Coast Highway, but this is the wrong plan for that job.
"The roundabouts are too small to work as they're supposed to," he said, adding that he thought they would result in a doubling of the length of the current traffic jams along southbound Coast Highway during the morning commute.
Looking at the pictures Fiske showed of backed-up vehicles along the roadway, Kranz told him that the existing condition "pretty much sucks" and asked how keeping the roadway as a two-lane system with stop signs was any benefit.
"Look at it; it can't get any worse (with Streetscape)," he said.
His comments startled opponents who said they couldn't believe that this was the city's argument for proceeding with the project.
"You really explained the position of the city as to why this has gotten so far," opponent David Smith said, adding that it was worth sitting through the meeting just to hear that comment.
While opponents said the changes would be a disaster for the coastal highway, proponents said the current conditions were such an extreme safety hazard for pedestrians and cyclists that they avoided walking or biking along the route.
Parents said they wouldn't let their kids bike from west of the highway to Paul Ecke-Central Elementary School just to the east, while Leucadia business owners said their customers found walking conditions along the roadway very unpleasant.
"This is a city project that many feel is overdue," Leucadia art gallery owner Morgan Mallory said, citing everything from property tax revenue benefits to drainage improvements as reasons to proceed and do all the work in one phase.
With the March 21 council vote to certify the Environmental Impact Report and amend city planning documents, the action moves next to the state Coastal Commission, which reviews projects in the coastal region.
While state officials are looking over the plans, the council will be contemplating how to pay for the Streetscape work. The issue is expected to be debated in the weeks to come as council members review spending options for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
-- Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.