HONK IF YOU LOVE CALTRANS: I confess I’m biased. I’ve never been a big fan of plans to widen the freeway. It’s always seemed insane to spend half-a-billion dollars to widen an eight-mile stretch of road to spare 13,000 Venturans the hell of rush-hour gridlock as they go to and from jobs in Santa Barbara. I figured the money could be better spent on expanded bus service, commuter rail, and a host of other alternative transit holy grails that seem utopian only here. Cars, I acknowledge, are amazing creatures. But should we bet the farm to perpetuate our reliance on them when we need to do precisely the opposite? Most people, I admit, see it otherwise. In 2008, county voters overwhelmingly approved Measure A — by nearly 80 percent — the half-cent sales tax that would fund a vast array of transportation projects over the next 30 years. Everyone agreed at the time — or pretended to — that the single top priority was widening the freeway between Montecito and Ventura. Ever since, however, we’ve been fighting like cats and dogs over what will and will not be included in this project. One week before Christmas, Malcolm Dougherty — the reigning Pope of Caltrans — announced he’d grown weary of our incessant bickering and issued a throw-down letter to the elected officials of Santa Barbara County. We need to move forward, he decreed. You’re either with us or against us. Dougherty put the voting members of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) on notice he needed a statement of consensus. Implicit in this letter was the threat Catrans will take its ball and go home if we don’t oblige, leaving Santa Barbara motorists stranded in perpetual Carmageddon.
As a rule, when I find myself admonished to shit or get off the pot, I arm myself with reading material and prepare to hunker down in the bathroom. I suggest the voting members of SBCAG do the same at their meeting on the freeway widening this week. At the very least, I’d suggest they demand an eyes-wide-open environmental impact report (EIR) instead of the heavily airbrushed document they’ve been given. The draft report devotes barely half of a sentence vaguely alluding to the fact that the extra traffic carried by the widened freeway will cause additional — that’s more, not less — congestion once it hits the City of Santa Barbara, exacerbating traffic problems near the Mission and Las Positas interchanges, and prompting motorists to seek refuge by taking to city streets. That means the streets of the city’s Eastside could soon be crawling with additional traffic by drivers seeking shortcuts through the neighborhood. Caltrans, it turns out, spent $200,000 studying this issue, but buried the detailed results in an appendix no one will ever see. City traffic planners have been demanding the draft analysis be recirculated to highlight this information, but Dougherty — in his Christmas bombshell — politely told them to pound sand. And for the record, Caltrans planners note the congestion problems City Hall complains of would be even worse if the freeway were not widened.
Personally, I’d like the environmental report expanded to include as part of the project the widening of the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge by the bird refuge and a roundabout by Olive Mill Road. Without the bridge widening, in particular, traffic will back up along Cabrillo Boulevard from here to kingdom come with angry motorists trying to inch their way onto the freeway. Caltrans and SBCAG staff argue if we expand the project description at this late date, we’re opening a Pandora ’s Box that will delay construction into the next millennium and burden the project with unsupportable costs. They point out there are at least 10 other ancillary projects — weighing in at $110 million — for which the same claims could be made. It’s a legitimate concern, but only sort of. The Union Pacific bridge, in particular, is special. Back in September 2007, Caltrans and SBCAG staff appeared before the Santa Barbara City Council and absolutely promised they’d see to it that the bridge widening took place. That was back when Caltrans was about to start the first phase of the freeway widening — known as the 101 “improvements.” The bridge work was a condition City Hall insisted upon in exchange for approving that project. For a host of reasons, it never happened. It was nobody’s fault. But you can understand why “trust me” assurances from Dougherty aren’t flying at City Hall.
Lastly, I’d include in my bathroom reading material a detailed explanation of just how we’re going to pay for the freeway widening and what the hidden implications of this information are. When voters approved Measure A back in 2008, they approved spending $140 million to widen the freeway. The next year, the SBCAG board voted to spend $135 million of the gas-tax revenues it received over the next 30 years on the freeway widening, as well. Because of that diversion of funds, a whole lot of other projects that used to get funding will now have to do without. Those gas taxes can’t be used for just anything. But in the City of S.B., they were used to build the new Loma Alta sidewalk, one of the best public works projects in eons. They were also used to resurface upper Chapala Street with new quieter rubberized asphalt. Likewise, the bike lane on Mission Street and the new sidewalks on Cabrillo Hill. And if the roundabout proposed for Cliff Drive and Las Positas is ever built, it will be thanks to $750,000 from these gas-tax revenues. Maybe 79 percent of the voters still think the freeway widening should trump everything else. But when they approved Measure A, these details were not available. When you’re signing on the bottom line for half-a-billion bucks, it’s a good idea to know what congestion relief you can expect it will — and will not — buy. And you should understand what sacrifices will be necessary to pay for it. If that takes a little extra time, then Malcolm Dougherty can wait.
But what else do you expect me to say? Clearly, I’m biased.