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The Fishhook (Hwy 1/Hwy 17)--Its Dangers and Problems

Fishhook LanesThe Fishhook has many problems and dangers for drivers passing through it. The following paragraphs detail some of the problems, organized in terms of ramp direction.

The graphic to the right is a small version of a sketch of the current lane configuration of the Fishhook interchange. Click on it to view a larger version. This graphic will be helpful in understanding the descriptions below.

South 17Southbound 17 to Southbound 1 Ramp

On weekday afternoons (usually starting about 4 PM or later, especially on Fridays), traffic coming home from the morning commute backs up on the ramp from Southbound 17 onto Southbound 1 with people trying to head back home to Mid and Southern Santa Cruz County. The exit ramp has only 1 lane, but widens enough for a passing lane until just before the merger with through traffic on Southbound Highway 1, where the 1-lane ramp merges with 2 lanes of through traffic to form only 2 lanes just beyond the merger. The backup generally continues south of the interchange for at least another two miles down the highway, and backs up through traffic on Highway 1 southbound for another mile north of the ramp merger. Most Santa Cruzans know to avoid Highway 1 at all costs during the afternoon commute hours if they need to get across town or across the county (although many of the alternatives can be just as bad).

Fishhook SignNorthbound 1 to Southbound 17 (Fishhook) Ramp

The Fishhook ramp connects Northbound Highway 1 with Southbound 17. The Fishhook ramp initially turns somewhat gradually as traffic slows from 55 MPH to 40 MPH, then suddenly becomes sharper, necessitating slowing down to 20 MPH. At this point, the two lanes of the Fishhook ramp merge with the two lanes of Southbound Highway 17 traffic going 55 - 65 MPH, creating three lanes just beyond the merger.

The ramp itself is an problem because of that sharpening turn, which is a rarity in California -- because it is so rare, people unfamiliar with the interchange can be surprised by it. The merger is a problem because of the large difference in speed between the ramp traffic and the through traffic, and that it is tough for traffic on Southbound Highway 17 to identify if there is a car on the fishhook ramp which may need to merge into its lane until it's too late to change lanes and avoid the merger altogether. For these reasons the Fishhook ramp and merge are the segments most people fear and hate the most.

Ocean StreetUnfortunately, this merger is unavoidable due to the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, the Fishhook is made up of two interchanges. Just beyond the merger, there is a two-lane exit ramp off the left-hand side of the highway which takes drivers down to the county government center and the Beach/Boardwalk area (Ocean Street). If someone on Northbound Highway 1 wants to use that exit, he or she must be in the left lane of the Fishhook ramp, safely merge with oncoming Highway 17 traffic, and then exit. During heavy traffic periods, especially during summer months, it is next to impossible for someone in the right lane of the Fishhook ramp to merge over a lane after entering Southbound Highway 17 in order to take the upcoming exit ramp. Caltrans' Summer 1999 trial restriping of the Fishhook ramp and its merger with Southbound Highway 17 eliminated the direct merger between Highway 17 and Highway 1 drivers, but the ramp's traffic volume was squeezed into one lane, which slowed down the ramp traffic that backups on Northbound Highway 1 extended for three miles, and left the same problems as before when slower ramp traffic tries to merge left in order to exit at Ocean Street. Avoiding the merging is also hard for Southbound Highway 17 drivers, as anyone heading towards Downtown or western Santa Cruz must be in the Fishhook-ramp merging lane in order to stay on the highway and not be forced into exiting at Ocean Street. And again, during heavy traffic periods, it is hard for someone in the leftmost lane of Southbound Highway 17 to merge back over towards the right in order to avoid taking the Boardwalk exit.

South 1Southbound 1 to Northbound 17 Ramp

This ramp is unique for the fact that it's on the left side of the lanes instead of the right -- again, a relative rarity in California. This portion of the interchange was part of an original ramp from Southbound Highway 1 "Bypass" to Northbound Highway 17 that was completed back in the 1950's to allow motorists to travel to the western part of Santa Cruz without having to go through Downtown (along the original at-grade routing of Highway 1). When the Highway 1 freeway was later put in to the northeast of the ramp, the section connecting the ramp to Southbound Highway 1 at the right edge of the above map was added. But what that did was, with today's increased traffic, force anyone who wants to go onto Northbound 17 to be in the left lane starting back at Mission Street, the street at the start of the "bypass." Many slow motorists and trucks are thus forced to be in the left (or fast) lane, which slows down both lanes. The density of traffic is simply too high much of the time to allow lane changes, especially for sand, concrete, semi, and tanker trucks.

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Large directional sign graphics made with Scott Oglesby's SignMaker Java applet.