Much like a married couple trying not to argue in front of company, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Gregg Hart went at it again this Tuesday over Caltrans’s plans to widen the freeway between downtown Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. Bitter adversaries though they’ve served together only two years, Hart and Schneider quarreled over many longstanding disagreements, while also raising a new one with disturbing implications.
According to a new report commissioned by City Hall, northbound traffic attempting to use the Olive Mill Road freeway exit during morning rush hours will back up all the way onto Highway 101 just two years after construction is complete. And with the increased speeds that the wider freeway will allow, City Traffic Planner Rob Dayton argued the safety hazards will be significantly greater.
Schneider’s suggestion is that SBCAG (Santa Barbara County Association of Governments) should front the $10 million needed to build a new roundabout at Olive Mill Road before widening work begins. A new roundabout was identified in the new report as the most effective remedy to such backup. That $10 million, Schneider said, could come out of the $130 million in state gas tax revenues the SBCAG board voted to commit to the freeway project over the next 30 years.
The problem, countered Hart, is that all the gas tax money has already been committed. Even with that, the massive construction project remains $150 million short of the estimated $450 million needed. Hart’s assistant at SBCAG, Steve VanDenburgh, argued that each of the 13 governmental entities represented on the SBCAG board have no shortage of pet projects for which the gas tax revenues would come in handy. Where, he asked, do you draw the line?
Schneider, Dayton, and the city’s Planning Commission have long complained the freeway widening project is missing several key components, like the Olive Mill roundabout and the widening of the railroad bridge by the city’s Bird Refuge. Caltrans, SBCAG, and Hart have steadfastly refused to expand the project description to include these pursuits. It would cause expensive delays, they’ve argued, and besides, the money isn’t there. Instead Caltrans and SBCAG have pledged to pursue the additional work via a “separate but parallel” process. To date, no funding has been secured, let alone identified.
Hart sermonized that his council colleagues need to put any acrimony behind them and move forward in a spirit of collaboration that hasn’t existed between City Hall and SBCAG for many years. To stew on the imperfections of the project, he argued, would lead only to impasse, gridlock, and failure, consigning the entire South Coast — so reliant on Ventura’s commuter workforce — to economic ruin.
Schneider, Dayton, and Councilmember Bendy White were less impressed with the overall net benefit the freeway widening promises thousands of car-trapped commuters; instead, they were more focused on the increased congestion the project would generate for the city’s side streets as northbound motorists would find themselves jammed at the Mission Street choke point.
The good news regarding the railroad-bridge widening project is that the Union Pacific Railroad finally responded to City Hall. The bad news is that the company rejected the city’s initial plans and asked for changes. Those changes could increase the bridge-widening costs by $8 million, bringing the estimated total to $28 million.