Caltrans got the green light to insert an additional northbound lane on Highway 101 roughly between Salinas and Milpas streets, even though the proposed landscaping plans fall drastically short of what the city’s Highway 101 planting guidelines call for. Those standards envisioned that stretch of freeway would serve as “the gateway” into Santa Barbara, and called for a 10-foot wide median strip overflowing with lush vegetation.
Despite vocal misgivings expressed by members of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, the City Council voted 6-1 for the plan because such concessions were deemed necessary to accommodate a new third lane running from the municipal tennis courts on Coast Village Road to Sycamore Creek. The third lane will be built instead of the two stretches of auxiliary lanes — before and after the Salinas Street on- and off-ramps — that had been initially envisioned as part of the “improvements” slated to Highway 101 between Hot Springs and Milpas streets. The council agreed to squeeze down the width of the freeway median because there is no right-of-way to the side of the freeway to allow the new lane. The councilmembers also agreed that the new lane could better accommodate more traffic — and more safely — than the auxiliary lanes could. When Caltrans eventually builds a carpool lane through Santa Barbara, this third lane will be critical. Councilmembers agreed it made more sense to build it now to minimize the disruption caused by freeway construction. Also, by doing it now, Caltrans has $2 million to contribute that will disappear if construction does not begin by June 1.
Not only were landscape architects like Phil Suding upset with the plans, but the owners of Sunrise RV Park complained that Caltrans — by hacking away 14 feet of the existing sound wall along Salinas Street — will subject their guests to noise and light intrusion. Sunrise’s attorney Susan Petrovich made a convincing display of someone ready to sue, but most officials working the matter remain convinced Caltrans will figure out how to settle the dispute before the June 1 deadline. Grant House was the only councilmember to vote no; he cut his teeth politically in the 1990s as an alternative-transit advocate who helped lead the charge that stopped the initial freeway-widening proposal. Ironically, what killed Caltrans’s widening proposal plan back then was an utter lack of landscaping.