The flick of a few golden spades by city, county, and state dignitaries signaled the commencement of the Milpas-to-Hot Springs Highway 101 widening project, which is scheduled to take place over the next four years. Unfortunately, the wind shifted as the officials, all clad in shiny hard hats, tossed their respective shovelfuls of dirt to the top of a neatly placed pile, showering photographers and reporters assembled at the front of the crowd with dust. “This is either an extremely slow media day, or you’re just excited about getting rid of all of this congestion,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal to the reporters, who composed the majority of the crowd.
Regardless of crowd makeup and dust mishaps, officials spoke excitedly about the freeway development project, which will be paid for through road improvement tax $20 million raised by Measure D and by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG). “The City of Santa Barbara has been very glad to fix the Milpas bottleneck and improve city streets,” said Mayor Marty Blum. “I’m encouraged to see ridesharing initiatives as part of this project.” In a rideshare program called Curb Your Commute, authorities are stepping up their calls for commuters to adopt other forms of transportation to ease the increased congestion that will be an inevitable part of the expansion project. Combined with rising fuel prices, more people are likely to ditch the solo-driver commute for rideshares, busses, trains and bicycles. Measure D, the half cent sales tax going toward transportation, will be replaced by Measure A, if voters choose to approve it when it appears on the upcoming November ballot. “I can’t tell you how important it is to approve Measure A,” said Carbajal. His sentiments on transportation funding were endorsed unequivocally by all of the other officials present.
Planned in four yearlong phases, the freeway expansion project includes a number of improvements, including an extra lane on each side on each side of the stretch near the Milpas overpass, more sidewalks and bicycle trails, a new underpass at Cacique street for better local access to the south side of the freeway, and a roundabout to smooth out the now confusing intersection at Coast Village Road, Old Coast Highway, and the freeway ramps. Sound walls will be erected on the north side of the freeway between Milpas and Salinas Streets – this time with automatic floodgates to keep the adjacent areas from filling with water during periods of heavy rain. Currently, a dirt track runs through the weeds along the Old Coast Highway, the result of countless workers making the foot commute between the Eastside and places of employment in Montecito and at the Biltmore. The new sidewalk will improve access and safety along this well-traveled pedestrian corridor.
Unfortunately, things will become a bit more difficult before the long term congestion improvements at this freeway bottleneck are realized. Officials said that at least two lanes will be kept open at all times, but with the current congestion that occurs every day with three lanes open, traffic will clearly be adversely affected. “Right now, traffic is limited to peak hours, but it will cover longer stretches of the day during construction,” said CalTrans Director Will Kempton. In addition to encouraging rideshares and other alternative commuting strategies to lower the volume of cars on the road, Kempton also suggested that motorists avoid the temptation to rubberneck when passing the construction site. According to Captain Jeff Scobba of the California Highway Patrol, SBCAG and CHP are stepping up service patrol hours, dedicating trucks to quickly remove vehicles that break down or wreck in the shoulder-less construction zone. There will also be seven CHP motorcycles dedicated to the area to keep response time low. EMS and Fire response time, which is affected by the current traffic scenario, will also experience the squeeze of the tightened bottleneck, said City of Santa Barbara Deputy Fire Chief Don Levasheff. “We’ll be in contact with the construction crews and Montecito Fire to coordinate our response,” he said.
The phalanx of tourists that descends upon our city every weekend will also be affected. City councilmember Helene Schneider said that hotels could encourage guests to stay until Monday or Tuesday to avoid the weekend rush on the temporarily choked transportation artery. “The key to this is the partnership between state and local governments and businesses to keep people informed as to what’s going on,” she said, noting the City’s cooperation with Ventura to improve rail service between the two cities. While hopeful that something can be worked out with Union Pacific Railroad and Amtrak to make passenger train schedules more accommodating, she voiced some frustration with the difficulty involved in shuffling train timetables. “We’re taking a very simple baby step to put the Amtrak train an hour earlier to make it more commuter friendly,” she said.
For more information, visit the Milpas to Hot Springs expansion website at sbroads.com