<b>GRIDLOCK GALORE:</b>  The only thing messier than Highway 101 traffic is the bureaucratic warfare over how to fix it.

Paul Wellman

GRIDLOCK GALORE: The only thing messier than Highway 101 traffic is the bureaucratic warfare over how to fix it.

Eyes Wide Open

Planners Play ‘Chicken’ over 101 Widening

Thursday, September 12, 2013
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As high-stakes showdowns go, last Thursday’s Santa Barbara Planning Commission deliberations could not have been more excruciatingly bureaucratic. But the stakes involved could not have been much higher. At issue is nothing less than the half-a-billion-dollar freeway widening slated to take place over the next 15 years between Ventura and the Fairview Avenue interchange in Goleta.

The Santa Barbara city planners unanimously insisted that Caltrans expand the project description to include a new and wider railroad crossing at Cabrillo Boulevard by the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge to accommodate not just bikes and pedestrians, but also the additional lanes of traffic the 101 widening will generate. Those lanes, they insisted, will be essential to hold the extra motorists using Cabrillo Boulevard as a de facto southbound exit ramp. Without the new lanes, they argued, traffic on Cabrillo will back up to an unacceptable level.

Likewise, they argued, the freeway-widening project must include a solution to the seven-way intersection problem now confounding drivers seeking to get on or off the freeway at Olive Mill Road. Lastly, they insisted that the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) prepared by Caltrans needed to explicitly acknowledge that the freeway widening will have a significant adverse impact on many Santa Barbara interchanges. In fact, morning motorists driving north around the Mission and Las Positas off-ramps will find peak-hour gridlock is much worse than it is now.

The current DEIR contains only one sentence alluding to this and then in only the vaguest of language. For these changes to be made, the commissioners insisted, the DEIR would need to be amended and then recirculated. That’s something Caltrans desperately wants to avoid. As it is, the EIR is already two years behind schedule, and further delays will cost the underfunded project millions of dollars. No one from Caltrans, however, attended the meeting. Perhaps that was a good thing. “I guess they were slapped down a little bit,” Planning Commissioner Michael Jordan commented afterward. Fellow Commissioner ​— ​and former mayor ​— ​Sheila Lodge put it more bluntly. “We don’t trust ’em.”

In the five-dimensional Kabuki theater attending the freeway expansion approval process, the Planning Commission meeting qualified as a mere gesture ​— ​but a deadly serious one. If the City of Santa Barbara refuses to issue Caltrans a coastal development permit for the freeway widening, then the project is dead. And as Commissioner Jordan put it, “It was clear from the meeting that if the vote for that permit were held next week, the outcome would not be favorable to Caltrans.” Despite the rhetoric, the commissioners and City Hall are on record in support of the freeway-widening project in general, just not the specific project that Caltrans has proposed. The commissioners are hoping that Caltrans engineers and decision makers get the picture before push comes to shove.

Attempting to make Caltrans’s case was Gregg Hart, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, the county super-agency that funnels millions of dollars of state and federal road funds to Santa Barbara County and the county’s seven city governments. Hart ​— ​now running for the Santa Barbara City Council ​— ​sought to dissuade the planning commissioners and city traffic engineers from their present confrontational course. By expanding the project definition to include these ancillary projects and recirculating the environmental impact report, Hart warned, the project could be delayed as much as five years. “And that extra time is very big money,” he said.

Hart estimated a five-year delay would cost Caltrans $50 million in carrying costs alone. And as interest rates and construction costs go up, the problem only gets worse, he said. He agreed that the improvements demanded by the commissioners were, in fact, necessary, but Hart insisted that they could and should be achieved as separate projects and without holding up the entire venture.

For his efforts, Hart got nowhere. City planners recalled how the railroad bridge expansion had been promised before by Caltrans when seeking approval for the Highway 101 improvements just completed, but never delivered. Hence Lodge’s stated lack of trust. The additional improvements sought by City Hall will cost millions, and the commissioners remain convinced that unless they are included in the project description itself, the money just won’t be there. “The chances are between nil and nonexistent there will be the funding,” said Commissioner Addison Thompson. “At least that’s the way we read the tea leaves.”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

I'm with Sheila Lodge . I don't trust Caltrans planning based on many area fiascos and near fiascos.
(1) if Caltrans planners had their way,Santa Barbara would have an elevated freeway through town . Just think how lovely that would have been. More parking area under bridges for transient r.v. parking , drunks and druggies hanging out and assorted mayhem.
(2) the wiping out of Stanley's surf spot south of SeaCliff . One of the premier beach breaks in the area. Gone under thousands of tons of boulders to create an unnecessary freeway offramp protrusion into the ocean. That one is a real piss off and they wouldn't get away with it today.
(3) the " Great Wall of Caltrans" along the Salinas to Milpas section. Fantastic graffiti murals if you're into that. Where's the vines to make those eyesores go away?
This list could go on and on , especially if broadened to include the whole state. Caltrans is an unresponsive , concrete laying behemoth that doesn't really care much about how their planning affects ancillary entities. I agree with Sheila - don't trust em.

geeber (anonymous profile)
September 12, 2013 at 3:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Will the city of SB refuse to issue Caltrans a coastal development permit for the freeway widening? We might as well ask for the the 101 traffic lights back while we're at it.

Botany (anonymous profile)
September 12, 2013 at 5:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I suspect Hart is correct. As we slowly move out of the recession, the cost of funding is rising.

Throwing in Mission and Las Positas seems like a gambit to win the prize that is the RR bridge.

Ironically, super slow growthers like Lodge have had a hand in creating the policies that are producing much of this traffic in the first place as increasing numbers of workers in SB commute from Ventura/1000 Oaks and Buellton/Lompoc/Santa Maria (over 40% at my company).

That could be a complaint or simply a fact, depending on where you stand politically. But very ironic.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
September 12, 2013 at 8:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Gregg Hart should stay the puck out of City Hall for any reason until election night in November.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
September 12, 2013 at 2:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Anything Gregg Hart advocates for is badly tainted in my opinion. He was one of if not the worst Coastal Commissioners in his time on the Commission and now he is leading the charge for another duplicitous gambit by the equally dubious Caltrans. The changes will never come to pass if the City signs off on the entire project now, just like the bridge. God help us if he gets on the city council,

Noletaman (anonymous profile)
September 12, 2013 at 10:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This is typical Caltrans, ignoring the traffic impacts on arterial roadways of their freeway projects. LA is a mess because of this short-sighted approach to transportation management. Good for the City of Santa Barbara! In poker, if you have the winning hand showing, you put the 50 million dollars in the pot and see if the idiot on the other side of the table thinks he can beat you. I would bet that Caltrans will fold. The only other alternative is to abandon the project, which Caltrans would never do.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
September 13, 2013 at 8:47 p.m. (Suggest removal)

If we let Caltrans get their way, they will ruin our freeway system for the next 100 years. Caltrans is California's #1 dysfunctional bureaucracy and needs restructuring from top to bottom. The 101 project will cost more if Caltrans drags its feet but it will be well worth it.

Just like the State's destructive land use policies forced down on the cities and counties, their transportation policies are a disaster with HOV lanes that sit empty while cars sit and pollute the air. The State needs to follow city and county plans. The cities and counties know their area far better than the bureaucrats in Sacramento. It would be nice to see local officials resist the State's land use policies as vigorously as they are the flawed transportation policies.

Sorry Gregg, if you want to be on the council you need to back the locals instead of the bureaucratic machine. We actually care what Santa Barbara looks like in the future.

Georgy (anonymous profile)
September 15, 2013 at 5:23 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Those in authority do not appear willing to face the main cause of this ongoing issue - more industrial and property development than the existing infrastructure can handle. The 101 freeway is the only North-South highway in this region, and it can only take a certain amount of traffic; so much new development, especially west of Santa Barbara as far as Winchester Canyon (business parks, malls, subdivisions and other property development) springing almost overnight like mushrooms in the fall, has generated way too much traffic for the highway to handle. Much of the 101 was designed to handle the traffic density of the 1960s and 1970s and the rush to pave every square foot of open space around the 101 in recent years has swamped our only north-south route.

Another issue aggravating this problem is the excessive inflation of property costs - house prices/mortgages and rent in Santa Barbara itself means that thousands of people who work in town on a daily basis cannot afford to live here and have to commute from as far away as Oxnard to the South and Santa Maria in the North. In addition, our local geography/topography doesn't exactly help matters - between Gaviota and Ventura, there is a narrow coastal strip varying between a few hundred yards to a few miles wide, so constructing a parallel highway is not on the cards.

Gridlock is one of the scourges of modern US society and is responsible for billions of wasted person-hours each year - a huge headache for the economy and a big hit on the quality of life for so many people. Any plumber will tell you what will happen if you try to push more water down a pipe than its diameter will allow: It will back up and cause a mess. It's a simple matter of physics. What is the solution? There isn't one - this situation will keep getting worse while rich, influential developers with bottomless pockets are able to buy politicians, or get around existing regulations by hiring teams of attorneys to hatch clever convoluted schemes that stay *just* within the law.

bloggulator (anonymous profile)
September 15, 2013 at 8:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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