The final funding obstacle preventing the construction of a suicide barrier on Cold Spring Bridge seems to have been overcome in Thursday’s Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) meeting. The project, which has been a source of public controversy for some time, will be made possible by a complicated three-way transfer of funds proposed by Caltrans among several current or impending building projects in the county.
SBCAG’s proposal involves not only the Cold Spring Bridge suicide barrier project, but also the Highway 101 Ellwood-Hollister interchange project, the Highway 101 Milpas/Hot Springs project and three different sorts of funding. The proposed money swap begins with the transfer of $1.89 million in currently unavailable State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) funds from the Ellwood/Hollister project into the reserve of the Highway 101 widening project. The $1.5 million of stimulus funding-due to expire in February 2010-that previously occupied the Highway 101 reserve is then planned to go to the Cold Spring Bridge project, which would pass on its SHOPP (State Highway Operations and Protection Program) funding to the Ellwood/Hollister project.
Not only are many projects and sorts of funds involved, but there are also a diverse range of interests tied up in Caltrans’s proposed fund swap. The Ellwood/Hollister project, a repair of Goleta’s Hollister Avenue bridge over Highway 101, is unanimously regarded as an excellent and probably necessary improvement that would positively impact Goleta. The suicide barrier project planned for Cold Spring Bridge is not so simply accepted by the public. Though on average one person per year jumps from the bridge to his death, some think that the potential diversion of one suicide per year is not worth the $1.5 million being transferred from the Highway 101 widening project that plays such a central daily role in the lives of most Santa Barbarans.
Most of the public comments made voiced concern about what would become of the Highway 101 Milpas/Hot Springs project once the $1.5 million reserve was replaced with currently frozen funds. For some, the swapping of funds seemed to create the threat of a potential delay in finishing the Highway 101 project that, while underway, poses a threat to public safety and a traffic nuisance. For others, it seemed sneaky and potentially suspect for the SBCAG board to give its blessing to the convoluted swapping of funds-“that project needs to stand on its own two feet to compete for funding,” pointed out one speaker, referring to the suicide barrier.
The most vociferous speaker against the suicide barrier project was Marc McGinnes, who has opposed its construction publicly since its inception. “The issue here is your judgment,” McGinnes told SBCAG board members, arguing that it was wrong to fund the suicide barrier with money intended to fund traffic safety. “What could you be thinking?” he asked, going on to say he was “amazed and appalled.”
Later, in a phone conversation, McGinnes reiterated his qualms with the funding swap and the suicide barrier project, accusing SBCAG with “gambling” with funds. “Why don’t you all go to Las Vegas and stop gambling with these monies?” he asked rhetorically, suggesting that if SBCAG really wanted to divert the Highway 101 reserve, they could put it toward the Ellwood/Hollister project instead.
Though members of SBCAG made a decision to pass the Caltrans proposal in June-a meeting that members of the public felt violated the Brown Act and cheated them of the opportunity to speak-there was still significant discussion on Thursday by public speakers.
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to go ahead with the shell game of exchanged funds that would result in what 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal termed a “win-win” for everyone.