The political food fight that is the freeway-widening and carpool-lane project for Highway 101 got bigger and badder this week with new combatants entering the fray and the established players upping the ante. At issue — broadly put — are the $500 million plans to expand the freeway from Montecito to the Ventura County line, what’s included in that plan, and how long it takes for the proposed project to become actual construction.
Thursday morning, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments — SBCAG — heard from a wide array of conflicting stakeholders in the project’s outcome. Pushing for speedy resolution were representatives of various chambers of commerce who argue that the freeway project needs to be built post haste to alleviate the hellacious congestion-induced delays that Ventura County residents experience as they drive to and from their Santa Barbara and Goleta jobs. A speaker for the Carpinteria Chamber expressed concern with the existing left-hand off-ramps in Montecito — the focus of much of the debate — describing how several boardmembers had experienced near misses with drivers who were surprised that the ramps were on the left side of the road instead of the right.
While these ramps are hardly the only bone of contention, they have gotten the most attention. Common Sense 101, a group of well-heeled and politically connected Montecito residents have argued that left-hand ramps should be retained over Caltrans’s objections. Contrary to Caltrans’s assertions, they claim, the ramps are as safe or safer than 90 percent of the off-ramps throughout the South Coast and that the freeway widening would be completed much faster and $60 million cheaper if they are not replaced.
Supervisor Salud Carbajal took Caltrans to task — yet again — for failing to provide a detailed analysis of these claims yet. Unless Caltrans provided a case-by-case analysis of the collisions that have taken place at these off-ramps — and that analysis demonstrated a real safety issue — he warned that the SBCAG board might vote to challenge the environmental impact report on the freeway widening Caltrans is eager to certify. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider pressed Caltrans district director Tim Gubbins to pledge that he would not certify the environmental report until after SBCAG meets on December 19. Gubbins agreed to hold off until after that meeting.
If Common Sense 101 were to get its way — and the left-hand ramps were retained — then Caltrans could not install a carpool lane through Montecito as it has always planned to do. Some alternative transportation supporters showed up on behalf of the carpool lane, arguing that to truncate it at the most congested stretch of freeway would render the entire effort a huge waste of time and money. Without the carpool lane, these speakers said, they never would have supported the sales-tax measure to fund the freeway widening in the first place. (That sales-tax measure — Measure A — passed five years ago.) But other environmental activists associated with the Community Environmental Council showed up to express concern that the freeway-widening project would gobble up any transit monies that in the past had been used to fund much-needed bike lanes.
Lost in the din was a letter submitted by Santa Barbara City Administrator Jim Armstrong questioning why Caltrans and SBCAG had not answered why the freeway-widening project does not include provisions for expanding the railroad bridge by the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge. For the past two years, City Hall has been arguing that the freeway widening had to include improvements for this bridge or else Cabrillo Boulevard would become intolerably congested. In addition, City Hall has insisted that the project should include a roundabout where Coast Village Road feeds into the freeway.
These weedy details of the high-impact wonk-fest are scheduled to be hashed out at the SBCAG meeting on December 19, but no vote will be taken until the January meeting at the soonest.