In the midst of an ongoing financial crisis, the state’s junior college system is looking to save money anywhere it can.
But one of the latest proposals has Cuesta College coaches and administrators saying the cost-cutting is not worth the savings if it puts students at greater risk of a fatal auto wreck.
Cuesta athletic director Bob Mariucci will be campaigning face-to-face this week at the Commission on Athletics’ spring convention in Ontario, intending to relay how a proposed plan to align Cuesta with a new conference could make the Cougars’ travel much more perilous.
In the interest of limiting travel costs, an emergency committee has recommended several conference shifts around the state, including a move for Cuesta — and potentially Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria as well — from the Western State Conference to the Central Valley Conference.
The move appears to cut Cuesta’s travel mileage by more than 40 percent, according to the committee’s estimates, but it also means the Cougars will be forced off Highway 101 and onto Highway 46 and its junction with Highway 41 — the site of numerous fatal collisions, most notably the one that killed 24-year-old actor James Dean in 1955.
A vote on the proposal is scheduled for Friday’s COA board meeting in Ontario.
“For people from Southern California, it’s hard to portray that because they’ve never done it,” Mariucci said.
“I mean, it’s called ‘blood alley.’ That’s the name, and it hasn’t changed that much since James Dean passed away.”
In 2003, Cuesta women’s water polo player Casey Goodwin was killed when her car was struck by the car of drunken driver on Highway 41 near Kettleman City while she drove home to visit her parents in Exeter. Goodwin’s death hit the college hard and inspired legislation intended to punish alcohol producers for their beverages’ effects on underage drinkers.
In recent years, portions of Highway 41 were widened from two lanes to three, and the state began mandating the running of daytime headlights in 1995, but the majority of the entire route remains one lane each way and includes blind turns against cliffs and over hills.
According to figures from a 10-year California Highway Patrol statistical sampling ending in 2007, there were nearly three times as many fatal collisions on the county roads leading to CVC sites as opposed to those of the WSC.
Looking at a California map, San Luis Obispo is in closer proximity to the sites of CVC teams. Seven, including Taft, Coalinga, Fresno, Porterville, Reedley, Visalia and Lemoore, are within 150 miles. Bakersfield, another team being proposed to move from the WSC would make eight. Hancock pushes it to nine.
All but the 30-minute commute to Santa Maria, however, require using at least Highway 46.
While Cuesta may be farther removed from its WSC counterparts, six of them are reachable directly through the four-lane Highway 101. Those are Hancock, Santa Barbara City, Ventura, Oxnard, Moorpark and Los Angeles Pierce. The rest are in the greater Los Angeles area.
“People in the Central Valley look close to us, but it’s not necessarily how it looks, as it is the ease of getting there,” Mariucci said. “It’s the travel, and that’s the convincing part for us.
“It’s been difficult to have people understand that. The only people that probably know how difficult it is are the coaches that drive those passenger vans all the time.”
Cuesta relies on its staff of primarily part-time coaches to drive a network of high-mileage passenger vans. The school had $30,000 to budget for charter buses for the first time this school year, but that money was set aside for only the longest trips.
Some coaches will be required to drive the 41/46 route at night, and coaches of winter sports will also likely have to contend with seasonal Tule fog, a thick ground fog tabbed as the leading cause of weather-related casualties in the state, according to weather.com.
Cougars men’s basketball coach Rusty Blair does not support the move and questioned whether having teams move into the CVC is really intended to save money. Some look at the shift as a way to boost the viability of the CVC.
“It’s also already stressful having to coach,” said Blair, a 17-year veteran at Cuesta, “but having to worry about getting there and getting back safely is too much.
“It looks like we’re the scapegoats to save a conference, but at what cost? An athlete’s life?”