Barry Siegel, a behind-the-scenes advocate of alternative transportation and one of Santa Barbara’s most polite and tireless bureaucratic bird dogs, died late on Thursday after suffering a massive stroke. Siegel was 74. Funeral services are scheduled for Monday at noon at Trinity Episcopal Church at 1500 State Street.
A native of New York, Siegel worked as an aeronautic engineer in Los Angeles and was part of the engineering team to develop the Global Positioning System (GPS). Siegel and his family moved to Montecito in 1993 at a time when the community furor over CalTrans’ plans to widen Highway 101 was in full flower. Siegel jumped into that issue and never looked back.
Over the years, Siegel brought his considerable engineering expertise to bear on the bureaucratically and financially convoluted mechanisms by which transit dollars were doled out and spent. For young alternative transit advocates without the time, patience, or expertise to decipher what actually transpired at the board meetings conducted by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), Siegel provided an exceptionally valuable service.
Having seen the traffic nightmare created by the uncontrolled growth of Southern California, Siegel was eager to help his adopted hometown avoid many the same mistakes that made gridlock endemic to so much of Southern California. The solution to our traffic woes, he repeated, was not so much the train or mass transit, but proper land use planning. Development should be sequestered along transit routes to the extent possible, Siegel said. He attended SBCAG meetings with a religious dedication. Even people who attended the same meetings as he did would remark they got more from reading his distilled summaries than what they saw with their own eyes. And few activists in any field displayed the appetite and aptitude for reading and digesting technically complex staff reports that Siegel did.
Siegel was especially skeptical about long-range population or traffic projections, and quick to question the underlying assumptions behind such predictions. But his style was always polite and respectful, and only on extremely rare occasions impatient or frustrated.
Last year at a party celebrating Siegel’s contributions, a large crate was dragged out containing every staff report and technical memo commissioned by SBCAG during the years of Siegel’s involvement. He’d read them all. Siegel was not so much an advocate as someone who mentored young – and not-so-young – advocates, quietly subjecting them to the same gentle questioning that he applied routinely to SBCAG staff and consultants. When COAST (Coalition for Sustainable Transportation) formed as an advocacy group for alternative transportation five years ago, Siegel was among its charter members, along with Grant House, Eva Inbar, and Alex Pujo. Certainly Siegel’s participation – and training – gave COAST a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of decision makers and bureaucrats they otherwise would not have enjoyed.
Before Siegel died, his wife Martha invited many of his closest collaborators to Cottage Hospital to say goodbye one last time. Their visit was brief – about five minutes. Twenty minutes after they left, Siegel died.