Caltrans Breaks Ground on Highway 17 Wildlife Undercrossing

Caltrans and the California Natural Resources Agency, along with local partners including the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission, broke ground today on an undercrossing that will provide critical connection for mountain lions and other wildlife to travel safely between two large areas of habitat separated by Highway 17.\

“Just a week ago, I was proud to join the groundbreaking ceremony for what will be the largest wildlife crossing in the world, connecting a critical habitat in Los Angeles County that’s been divided by a ten-lane highway,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “But we know that one project alone won’t solve this problem, it’s going to take more crossings and innovations to protect Californians, wildlife, and natural habitats – that’s why this project in Santa Cruz County is so vital to our overall strategy of preserving California’s natural beauty.”

The Laurel Curve Wildlife Undercrossing will connect the nearly 460 acres of land on both sides of the highway that has been preserved in a conservation easement by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. The roadway at this location is built over a large natural drainage, making the location is ideal for construction of a wildlife undercrossing.

“This unique and innovative project is the result of community collaboration and aligns with Caltrans’ commitment to safety and respect for the environment,” said Caltrans Acting Director Steven Keck. “This wildlife undercrossing will reconnect habitat on both sides of the highway while helping reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, improving safety for the thousands of people who travel the Highway 17 corridor every day.”

“This project shows how people and nature can thrive together,” said California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. “This undercrossing allows animals to connect to important habitat while protecting motorists from collisions. We’re excited to expand and accelerate these win-win conservation actions.”

High daily traffic volumes combined with a concrete median barrier and a lack of water passages or bridges in the area contribute to a high frequency of animal-vehicle collisions along Highway 17.

“Mountain lions, bobcats, bear, deer and countless other species will benefit from this undercrossing and others like it,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham. “It’s an exciting time to be in the Golden State to see such thoughtful, well planned, partnership-based solutions that will be advantageous for drivers and wildlife alike. I hope we continue to break ground on more connectivity projects, like this one, for our state’s precious wildlife.”

Crews have already begun building concrete supports under a 71-foot segment of the highway and, once the supports are in place, soil will be removed from beneath the roadway to create a bridge under which wildlife can cross. The undercrossing will be just over 13 feet tall at its highest point and will run approximately 85 feet in length beneath the four lanes of Highway 17.

“For a long time, scientists have known that Laurel Curve is a critically dangerous intersection for animals traveling along the Wildlife Highway that spans from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Gabilan range in the South,” said Land Trust of Santa Cruz County Executive Director Sarah Newkirk. “Wildlife crossings were not commonplace in California, and – with the help of our supporters and partners – we had to write the playbook as we went. The Land Trust took a calculated risk – that by securing land on both sides of the highway, we could facilitate a wildlife crossing project with Caltrans.”

The Laurel Curve wildlife undercrossing project benefits from an ongoing collaboration between several state and local partners dedicated to developing and funding wildlife connectivity. This partnership includes Caltrans, the California Natural Resources Agency, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission, Pathways for Wildlife, the UC Santa Cruz Puma Project, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“As Secretary for Natural Resources, a Santa Cruz resident and long-time driver of Highway 17, I am intimately familiar with the hazards to motorists and wildlife at Laurel Curve,” said State Senator John Laird. “I was pleased to play a role in equipping the state with the right policy for the successful building of the wildlife crossing. This has been a partnership of many people and organizations, and I look forward to celebrating the start of this long-awaited project.”

“We have long recognized that the delicate wildlife ecosystem bisected by Highway 17 put the lives of both animals and drivers at risk,” said State Assemblymember Mark Stone. “This wildlife crossing is a monumental effort put forth by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and its many partners to mitigate that risk by providing safe passage for these animals. Bravo!”

Pre-construction phases of the project were funded with Caltrans’ State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP) funds. The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission will utilize voter-approved Measure D funds to leverage additional SHOPP and Land Trust dollars for construction. The Land Trust also secured $10 million in purchased property rights value which connects two core habitat areas on either side of the highway, and which are protected from development.

The contractor for this $5.4 million construction project is Graniterock of Watsonville, CA. Construction began in February 2022 and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

“We’re proud to play a key role in making this project a reality for the community of Santa Cruz County,” said Rachel Reed, Graniterock’s Biological Resources Project Manager. “As a company, we are strong supporters of new infrastructure that delivers environmental benefits as well as improves safety for motorists through this heavily traveled corridor.”

Caltrans reminds motorists to move over and slow down when driving through highway work zones. For traffic updates on other state highways in Santa Cruz County, travelers may contact Caltrans District 5 Public Affairs at 805-549-3318 or can visit the Caltrans District 5 website.