An idea hatched nearly 20 years ago by Milpas merchants and city decision makers was realized Monday when a cadre of elected officials and Caltrans reps ceremoniously opened the gate between two sides of Cacique Street previously blocked by Highway 101. A two-lane road with bike lanes now flows under the raised highway, better connecting drivers, cyclists, and walkers of the lower Eastside neighborhood with nearby business and the beach, and allowing them to bypass the tricky Milpas roundabout.
The corridor opens at the same time relieved motorists celebrate the completion of new third lanes on Highway 101 between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road, part of a massive ongoing plan to uncork traffic congestion along 16 miles of the South Coast thoroughfare. “It almost feels like these projects never come to fruition,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal during Monday’s well-attended press gathering. “That’s the nature of transportation funding and transportation projects.”
These first-phase improvements, four years of construction and $57 million in the making, included the overhaul of two major interchanges, work on six new or improved bridges, and the Montecito roundabout. It was the largest Caltrans project in Santa Barbara since the crosstown route was completed in the early 1990s. The voter-approved Measure D, a local sales tax that helps pay for such traffic-improvement ventures, contributed $13 million toward the $57-million price tag. “[It’s] a reminder of why we tax ourselves,” said Carbajal.
While the later project phases are a few years off — though the second step of highway improvements at the northern end of Ventura County up to Carpinteria Creek has begun — Milpas residents and Santa Barbara city dwellers in general are already enjoying the initial upgrades. (This reporter experienced a big decrease in drive time during a recent rush-hour trip from Goleta to Montecito.)
Patricia Hildebrand, 88 years old, said the Cacique Street undercrossing — walled by set-aside cement canvas space for forthcoming murals, if the S.B. Arts Commission gets the needed funding — makes it much easier for her to make her daily walking trips to the Nopalitos Way Post Office. “I love it,” she exclaimed as she headed below the bridge with her walker. Ray More, who fishes in his spare time, said the easier beach access is a huge plus for him and his lower Eastside neighbors. “It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s the best thing to happen in Santa Barbara in a long time for these residents.”
And Casey Hurd, owner of Car Guy Stereos at the corner of Milpas and Cacique (ground zero during the years of construction), had nothing but good things to say about the project’s process and completion. “[Construction] didn’t affect business,” he said, “and now customers can get in and out of the parking lot easier than they could before.”
Exemplifying a rare instance of colossal bureaucracies actually listening to and working with grassroots groups, representatives of the Milpas Community Association also sounded positive reinforcement for the undercrossing and lane additions. President Alan Bleecker said during the press conference that the additions would certainly help traffic flow and relieve pressure on the roundabout. And Sharon Byrne, in a later interview, said police now have better access to the neighborhood. She also remarked that Caltrans cleaned up the vacant lots it owns behind the Carpinteria Street Rabobank, deterring the homeless from camping and fornicating there.
She worried, though, that the now-direct route from the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter to perpendicular Alisos Street, Voluntario Street, and beyond could pose a problem, echoing concerns she heard from members of the area’s neighborhood watch. Gang members, Byrne said, also tend to populate lower Milpas and might find opportunities for mischief, especially to graffiti on the new undercross walls.
For the next few weeks, road crews will work nights to put the finishing touches on the third lanes and their on- and off-ramps, grinding, paving, and re-striping between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road. They’ll also be installing new signs, removing temporary construction markers, and adding irrigation and plants near Milpas, Cacique, Alisos, and Salinas streets.