In a major flex of political muscle, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider managed to muster the majority she couldn’t find two weeks ago for City Hall to take over the ownership — and financial responsibility — of State Route 225, the major state-owned roadway running 4.5 miles through the heart of Santa Barbara. Two weeks ago — much to Schneider’s evident vexation — the council voted 4-3 to put long-simmering plans of taking over the state highway on indefinite ice due to budgetary concerns. Since then, however, Schneider managed to change the minds of councilmembers Cathy Murillo and Bendy White, who gave her a solid 5-2 majority to initiate the process by which Caltrans relinquishes ownership of State Route 225 to City Hall.
Long-term, the promise is that of local control, something Mesa residents in particular have been demanding for more than 10 years. They’ve grown impatient to have Cliff Drive managed as a residential thoroughfare, not the primary arterial Caltrans insists it is. But short-term, local ownership may not be the same as local control, especially given the city’s budget constraints. Just to maintain State Route 225 will cost the city’s cash-strapped streets programs $367,000 a year; any improvements that will make pedestrians safer will cost millions of dollars, not merely hundreds of thousands. Even so, Schneider’s argument “If not now, when?” proved compelling for Murillo, who noted in her remarks how she had briefly lived on the Mesa before being evicted because she and her dog snored too loudly. “When will we have the money we need in our streets fund?” Murillo asked. “Never,” she went on. “I don’t think ‘never’ is a good answer to relinquishment.”
The question of public safety dominated the debate. Two weeks ago, City Attorney Steve Wiley released statistics showing the accident rate along Cliff Drive and Las Positas Road to be far above the citywide average. Wiley warned that by taking over ownership without making traffic-safety improvements, City Hall would assume increased legal liability in the event of an accident. Juries, he said, had a hard time not awarding sympathetic victims, especially when deep-pocketed parties like City Hall were involved. Such dire predictions were undercut by Caltrans’s report that the two largest awards stemming from such litigation totaled only $35,500. Reinforced during Monday’s special council meeting was the width of the reality gap separating City Hall from the state agency. Caltrans reportedly contends Santa Barbara has 3,000 street names; city records indicate there are only 900. Likewise, Caltrans reports there have only been 200 accidents along State Route 225 in the past 10 years, while city records indicate it’s closer to 700.
Traditional fiscal hawks, like councilmembers Dale Francisco and Frank Hotchkiss, argued the council should wait until flusher economic times before assuming the financial burden of the new highway. Francisco said it made no sense to take on new debts when there are no plans for how to improve pedestrian safety. “This is a case where we don’t have much money, we don’t know where it’s going to come from, and we don’t even know what it’s going to cost.” More vehement in tone, Hotchkiss objected, “I guess we’re saying we have a hole in our pocket so let’s make it even bigger.” Typically, Councilmember Randy Rowse would voice similar concerns, but Rowse, a Mesa resident, insisted there’s more to decision-making than counting the dollars and cents. When people complained about the traffic conditions on Cliff Drive, he said, he didn’t want to answer, “Let me call Sacramento and say, ‘What can we do about it?’”
Mayor Schneider insisted that only after committing to ownership and local control would City Hall discover the funding options available. That approach worked, she pointed out, with the flood-control creek restoration effort now underway for lower Mission Creek. And it’s worked so far with the freeway expansion project, as well. The act of declaring these projects a priority, she said, opened up funding sources that would otherwise not have been available. Or, as Councilmember Grant House put it, “This is one of those times you’ve got to suck it up and go.”