The Santa Cruz Mountains are isolated by habitat fragmentation, making it more difficult for wildlife to traverse and occupy the mountain range. Highway 17 is a four-lane expressway connecting the City of Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz County to the greater San Francisco Bay Area in California. About 65,000 vehicles travel the highway each day (20 million vehicles a year). The dense traffic, concrete median barriers, guardrail, and lack of under-crossings large enough to function as wildlife crossings have created insurmountable obstacles to regional wildlife connectivity. In 2022, The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans District 5) in partnership with the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, Pathways for Wildlife, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, University of California Santa Cruz, and Granite Rock Construction, constructed a wildlife undercrossing structure on Highway 17 to allow safe movement of wildlife and improve traffic safety along a portion of highway within the mountain range. When first imagined in 2013, the Laurel Curve Wildlife Crossing Project presented a great opportunity to partner with a diverse group of public and private organizations.
Wildlife habitat areas on either side of Highway 17 at Laurel Road were identified by landscape-scale wildlife connectivity models as a critical linkage for mountain lion, a California Endangered Species Candidate, and other wildlife. GPS/radio telemetry, wildlife cameras, and roadkill data confirmed Laurel Road was a location along the Highway 17 corridor where a wildlife crossing structure would provide the greatest benefit to restoring habitat connectivity. Caltrans overall investment was $5,140,000, support cost only. This was matched by $5 million towards construction provided by the Regional Transportation Commission through a local tax measure passed in 2016 and supported by over 2/3 of the voters. An additional $10,000,000 was invested by the Land Trust to conserve land parcels in the corridor and Right of Way adjacent to the new undercrossing. Each partner was able to leverage funds for a community-driven project with broad support, and apply their areas of expertise to address project components (ex. fund raising, community outreach, science, and engineering). In 2016 Caltrans also collaborated with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop an advanced mitigation crediting system that would allow Caltrans to use the credits for future transportation projects requiring mitigation for impacts to wildlife movement under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The project is the first wildlife crossing constructed in California under the auspice of advanced mitigation to offset highway impacts to wildlife movement. Governor Newson has stated “The project in Santa Cruz is vital to our overall strategy of preserving California’s natural beauty. It’s going to take more crossings and innovations to protect California’s wildlife and natural habitats.“