Almost 10 years ago, Santa Barbara County voters overwhelmingly supported a half-cent sales tax to pay for “a lane and a train.” The agencies in charge of implementing those projects are now on course to deliver us the lane without the train. We should flip that. Here’s why:
1. We have the money to do commuter rail and a 21st-century transit system. We do not have the money to widen the freeway. If anyone tells you differently, ask them to tell you where the freeway money will come from exactly.
According to the Santa Barbara County Association of Government’s (SBCAG) principal transportation planner in charge of Measure A rail service implementation, it would cost between $100 million-$200 million to deploy a commuter rail service running 35 miles between Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. That turns out to be a convenient number.
Measure A raised $140 million to widening almost 11 miles of the freeway. The problem with that is that it will cost an estimated $450 million (as with all major infrastructure projects, the final price could end up much higher). There are no state or federal funds currently identified to close that gap although, as discussed below, a big chunk of the money would be effectively expropriated from municipal surface street budgets for the next few decades.
Instead of spending years of construction and hundreds of millions of dollars that we don’t have on the freeway, why not devote it to rapidly deploying the 21st-century transit system discussed below?
2. We now have viable models to solve the “last-mile problem.” When Measure A was drafted, the idea of commuter rail was not seen as viable because commuters would still have to get from the station to their ultimate destination — this is known as the “last-mile problem.” That was before Uber and Lyft revolutionized how people view car taxis and car ownership in general, before bike sharing really began to boom, before car-sharing programs like Zipcar (with which the City of Santa Barbara just signed a contract). When we weave all of these services together through smartphone-enabled technology, we enter a new transit paradigm that transit wonks call Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS).
People in cities around the world travel seamlessly and multi-modally from origin to destination without use of their own vehicle right now. Less individual drivers on the road equals less traffic and less traffic equals less demand for parking. Can we all agree that parking is kind of a big deal in Santa Barbara?
MaaS is the future and as anyone who travels much knows, the future is now in many cities around the world. Let’s invest in the future rather than indebt ourselves building a system that is antiquated upon arrival.
3. Autonomous automobiles are already a game-changing reality that effectively reduce freeway traffic congestion without the huge cost. When Measure A was voted on, the concept of autonomous automobiles was still a thing of science fiction. Fast forward eight years, and self driving cars are already on our roadways. They could be in dealerships within two years. One of the reasons why autonomous cars are a huge deal is that they are so much more efficient than human-driven vehicles. According to a study by the Center for Urban Transportation Research, “human-driven vehicles provide a maximum throughput of about 2,200 vehicles per hour per lane, which is also called the roadway capacity. This reflects only 5 percent utilization of the roadway space.” Caltrans’s primary performance measure for the freeway widening is to “reduce corridor delay by at least 7,000 person-hours daily” in 2040. Autonomous cars are projected by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to produce almost precisely that same reduction — at zero cost to taxpayers.
Given the above and considering the likelihood that still newer unanticipated innovations are around the corner, why impose these costs on ourselves now?
4. The costs of the freeway expansion would be borne by residents of Santa Barbara — particularly those living near the freeway — while the benefits go almost exclusively to commuters traveling from Ventura County to somewhere south of Garden Street. Caltrans’s own study shows that increased flow from a third northbound lane will form a bottleneck around Garden Street when it combines with traffic entering the freeway from Santa Barbara. So if you live in my neighborhood, for example, and want to drive north to Goleta from the Arrellaga Street on-ramp in peak hours, you will be in worse shape with the new lane than without it.
I am happy to pay an additional half-percent sales tax for transportation solutions, but I’d rather not pay to impose more traffic on myself.
5. More freeway commuters → more surface street traffic → more street maintenance cost, but the freeway expansion has already gobbled up the money that we used to pay for street maintenance! This one falls under the category of “you can’t make this stuff up.” Because the $140 million designated for freeway widening under Measure A is hundreds of millions of dollars less than the cost of the project, the SBCAG board, led by North County representatives and a pro-growth Goleta member, somehow had the power and bad judgement to commit 30 years of gas tax money to the highway widening — funds that South County municipalities have traditionally used to repair our roads. Mayor Schneider has been saying this for years, but it seems to be too much of a bummer for anyone to talk about in polite company. If we proceed with widening the freeway with local funds (and there are no other sources of funds on the table), we’ll have even less money to deal with even greater costs to address deferred road maintenance.
6. A meaningful climate change mitigation strategy starts with not committing virtually all of our transit funding to the very model contributes nearly one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Inducing more people to drive makes a bad problem worse, increasing carbon dioxide emissions by 67 percent above today’s levels according to Caltrans. It seems head-smackingly obvious to me that if you agree that climate change is an existential threat, then you should be opposed to widening freeways based on the opportunity cost alone, if not the project-caused increased emissions.
At a time when the worst drought in recorded history is dramatically illustrating how seriously we need to take on climate change, we are on the brink of committing about $450 million (much of it expropriated from us via SBCAG, much of it we simply don’t know where it might come from) to widen 10.9 miles of freeway so that people from Ventura can drive their cars work. On the other hand, we are being told that commuter rail along an existing railway is not feasible. That simply does not make sense, but there are no updated studies to either establish or refute that claim. Given all that has changed and all that is at stake, let’s spend some of that Measure A money figuring that out.
Let’s have a serious conversation about creating a transit system that our kids will be proud of — not get stuck on the idea of completing an outdated infrastructure project regardless of the costs.
Jack Ucciferri is a Realtor with The O’Toole Group and the coordinator of the South Coast Bike Share Initiative. He and his wife are bummed by speeding cars when they take their 10-month-old on walks around their neighborhood between State Street and the freeway.