Every day, tens of thousands of South Coast residents are negatively impacted by the gridlock on Highway 101. Some sit idly for hours in frozen traffic; others endure the resulting congestion on our neighborhood streets, while our county suffers as a whole from the negative air quality and restricted flow of goods and services. This situation has become intolerable in recent years and is one of the few downsides to life in our beautiful community.
In response, in 2008, the voters of Santa Barbara County passed Measure A by a whopping 79 percent to widen and improve the 101. Following the passage of Measure A and its related funding, it became incumbent on us as elected officials to implement this vitally needed public works project.
Significant progress has been made, but a recent lawsuit will likely delay and increase the costs of the widening project — possibly by tens of millions of dollars. There has also been a recent op-ed by the mayor of Santa Barbara that has encouraged such lawsuits.
It is important to clarify that the state and federal gas-tax funds that are being used as a portion of the funding for the widening cannot be used for local road maintenance. They are for regional transportation improvements, and their specific use must be approved by the state. It is also untrue to suggest that we cannot continue the design and permitting process until the final phase of the project is fully funded. The process and manner in which our local 101 widening is being funded and implemented is consistent with how ALL major transportation improvements are done throughout our state and nation.
Where we are today is the result of 12 years of community conversations and planning, beginning with a stakeholder process called 101 In Motion that was initiated by the Santa Barbara Association of Governments (SBCAG) in 2002 and involved a diverse range of interested parties throughout the Central Coast. Eventually, consensus was reached to widen Highway 101 to three lanes in both directions between Ventura and Santa Barbara, implement commuter rail service in the corridor, and enhance existing commuter bus service. In 2005, the SBCAG board voted unanimously to adopt this plan. In 2008, the SBCAG board, every city in the county, and a wide array of stakeholders agreed on a balanced plan to renew our local transportation sales tax as a match to fund a range of transportation improvements, including local road maintenance, commuter rail, and bike paths — with $140 million dedicated to the 101 widening as the highest-priority project.
Phase 1 of the widening from Santa Barbara into Montecito was completed ahead of schedule in 2012. Phase 2 of the widening from Ventura County to Casitas Pass in Carpinteria is currently under construction using a state grant that our two counties secured. In fact, we recently celebrated the completion of the dedicated bike lane from Mussel Shoals to Carpinteria, and the new third lane between the two counties is also partially open, with the whole project scheduled to be completed next year. Next up are improvements to the interchanges in Carpinteria, which, pending resolution of some remaining issues, are scheduled for construction in 2016. Finally, the preliminary design and environmental review process has been completed for the critical widening of the remaining 10-mile gap between Carpinteria and Montecito.
The design and environmental review process of this last part was put on hold for almost a year to allow the design team to analyze and provide feedback on alternatives proposed by some residents in Montecito that would have retained left-hand-lane ramps. Ultimately, the director of Caltrans and Governor Jerry Brown’s office ruled that these were not viable. In January, our SBCAG board voted 11-2 to move forward while continuing to address concerns that had been raised.
Given the history of process and promises made in regard to widening the 101, it is imperative that we continue to move forward in a spirit of cooperation. Delays will result in raising costs exponentially and cause unnecessary hardship to residents, businesses, visitors — and our local economy.
That is why our SBCAG board has hired an independent consultant to work through any remaining design issues with Caltrans. We also realize that related local infrastructure challenges continue to exist and need to be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction, and we have initiated parallel projects, including improvements to the San Ysidro Interchange, a roundabout at Olive Mill/Coast Village Road, replacement of the Cabrillo Railroad Bridge, and Phase III projects.
We remain committed to working with all stakeholders to move the 101 widening forward as quickly as possible in a way that resolves remaining issues, maintains the character of our community, and finally addresses the traffic congestion that so adversely impacts all our lives.