The last gasp in the effort to delay the widening of Highway 101 was soundly denied by Judge Thomas Anderle on May Day. The lawsuit was the second brought by a group of petitioners and, as had the first, argued numerous California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) deficiencies in the environmental impact reports. The first Writ of Mandate, which was filed in 2014, ended with Judge Anderle ordering Caltrans to stop assuming that the de-congestion benefit to the highway extended to city intersections and do the impact studies required. This time, however, the judge stated tartly to the plaintiffs: “that further study might be helpful does not make it necessary.”
Caltrans complied with the judge’s first order and did the studies, identifying eight intersections that would need to be upgraded to relieve the traffic jams expected by 2020 and 2040, said Scott Eades, 101 corridor manager for Caltrans. The state transportation agency also committed to put $7.5 million in “fair share” payments toward most of them, including potential roundabouts at Olive Mill and Coast Village roads, and also at Los Patos and Cabrillo Boulevard — the ultimate design is up to the county and City of Santa Barbara, respectively, said Eades, which own the land.
Though Judge Anderle was satisfied that Caltrans had performed to CEQA standards, petitioners’ attorneys Marc Chytilo and Ana Citrin said they remain concerned about issues deemed outside the scope of the Writ or project by the judge, such as delays between Santa Barbara and Goleta, and also impacts at Milpas intersections like Indio Muerto. The petitioners included Lawrence and Sharon Grassini, Mark Schwartz, and a group called the Committees for Land, Air, Water and Species (CLAWS).
In its comments to the EIRs, the City of Santa Barbara, whose former mayor had encouraged the lawsuit, pointed out that the addition of a third lane will simply increase highway traffic, which with two lanes is rated to be 4,000 cars per hour. And that will increase congestion on city streets comparably. What Caltrans ignored, the comment continued, is that relieving congestion in one location simply moved it to another and that the cumulative impact should be considered. Caltrans responded that with the bottlenecks eliminated on the highway, drivers would continue through rather than attempting to go around on city streets.
Overall, two of the four project phases along the 101 are finished, with work continuing on the third, which includes making room for a third lane while replacing two Carpinteria overpasses. The project impacts in the beachside city are felt during rush hours, said Mayor Fred Shaw, mainly with left turns or exiting side streets. But he credited Caltrans with keeping his citizens informed of the work and expected nuisances, like noise.
Caltrans estimated the lawsuits cost more than two years of design and coastal permit work. The county’s Association of Governments (SBCAG) put the price tag on delays at $20 million to $30 million per year given the inflationary costs of construction, not to mention “legal costs, technical studies, and staff resources involved,” said Marjie Kirn, head of SBCAG.
SBCAG will put $140 million of Measure A “train and lane” dollars toward the project, which adds a third high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane to the 101 between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. In comparison, the new morning commuter train service — the “train” portion of Measure A — is funded with $2.5 million from SBCAG. The agency is also in line to receive a grant of $226 million next week, funded by Senate Bill 1 gas-tax money, said Kirn, to pay for highway work between Bailard Avenue in Carpinteria up to Sheffield Road in Montecito. All told, the current cost of the project is $585 million; each of the four subsegments may take three to four years to complete, said Eades. Updates will be posted at sbroads.com/widening_projects.