One in a pair of capital projects meant to improve car and pedestrian access around a congested thoroughfare in Downtown Ventura is underway despite consistent financial setbacks, city officials have announced.

Despite some snafus with access to nearly $15 million in state funding earmarked for the relocation of the California Street off-ramp from Highway 101 north, more than $1 million in federal monies for a makeover project to the street’s pedestrian bridge is flowing through, says Rick Raives, Ventura’s lead engineer.

“We’re determining what the design should look like,” Raives said.

According to its public arts director, Denise Sindelar, the city is in the process of vetting designs and consulting with Michael Davis, a San Pedro artist contracted to come up with integrated improvements to the bridge’s lighting fixtures, higher railings, and also safety upgrades to pedestrian crossing at the railroad tracks on California Street and Harbor Boulevard.

Another aspect is to provide pedestrian access to the northbound side of the California Street bridge. Currently, a sidewalk and crossing are available only on the other side of the street.

In addition to the $1 million in federal funding, Sindelar noted that $200,000 in public arts funding has been set aside for the pending redesign, slated for completion sometime next year.
“It’s designed to improve the walking experience and to provide a visual element that, hopefully, attracts drivers on the 101 freeway,” she said.

But until state transportation funds promised to Ventura are released back into the city’s hands, more traffic coming off the freeway onto the California Street corridor isn’t exactly what the city may need at this point.

“We all recognize there’s a traffic nightmare there,” says Rick Cole, Ventura city manager. “As bad as traffic is, walking there is equally unpleasant.”

The city’s plan, in tandem with improvements to the bridge, is to move the California/Thompson Boulevard freeway off-ramp, for years a hazard to pedestrians and motorists alike, one block away to Oak Street and Thompson.

Raives, citing traffic statistics, says very few accidents — 10 in the last five years — have resulted from cars exiting the freeway onto California, and even fewer at California and Thompson, where four collisions took place in the last four years. Raives said 10,000 cars come off the ramp per day, and 8,000 pedestrians cross the bridge toward the Downtown Ventura pier.

However, during a recent presentation at a Downtown Ventura Organization meeting, Tom Mericle, another city engineer, claimed that three fatalities have occurred from cars making left turns from the off ramp. Mericle could not be reached for further comment.

One theory explaining the intersection’s dangerous nature is that cars driving northbound on California toward Thompson may inadvertently run the stop sign there into the path of cars exiting the freeway. Motorists driving along the off-ramp have no stop sign when they reach California Street, which is not normally the case at most exits along the freeway.

Caltrans had granted the city the $15 million in congestion relief money, said Raives, and his department got so far as to spend $1.5 million of it on design documents and environmental impact reports before the state froze its financing due to the budget crisis.

“The money’s a little more discretionary than we hoped,” Raives said. “We got started on that but we had to put it on hold.”

As a result of the project freeze, and the tenuous nature of the freeway exit, Raives says the opposite of car accidents has been known to take place. Instead, traffic tends to back up along the off-ramp and onto Highway 101, compounding congestion.

“What really happens is, it’s confusing, so enough people are cautious and move slowly through there,” he said. “When you take all that exiting traffic away … it makes it a lot easier for pedestrians to cross the bridge.”

Although the city’s two projects were meant to work in tandem, Raives could not estimate when funds for the off-ramp relocation might happen. In the meantime, he said, the city may have to seek alternate funding.

The pedestrian portion of the project, according to Sindelar, will go before the city’s public arts commission for formal approval at its Aug. 18 meeting.