THE FRENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS MY WHAT? Sometimes even I can’t figure out the convoluted geometry of all my carefully cultivated prejudices. Like right now, whom am I supposed to root for in the massive hairy-eyeball fest pitting some major-league movers and shakers from Montecito against Caltrans — the ultimate über-state-bureaucracy — over the proposed widening of Highway 101? This is arguably the biggest public-works construction project ever to hit Santa Barbara County ever since God and Father Junípero Serra — whose 300th birthday was just celebrated — conspired to “discover” Santa Barbara, much to the surprise and demise of the thousands of Chumash and the proto-Chumash who’d been occupying this area for roughly 10,000 years. Are we supposed to root for the overly entitled, retired multimillionaires residing in Monte-snitto who are not-so-subliminally threatening to take the project to court — thus putting at risk the only viable plan to save area motorists from the terminal Congestion Creep now engulfing their daily commute on Highway 101? Above all else, the Montecito crowd — calling itself Common Sense 101 — wants Caltrans to keep Montecito’s two left-hand-lane exit ramps just as they’ve been since “Hoonie” Serra conscripted the unwilling Chumash to lay the first roads. (It should be noted that Father Serra — who established up and down the coast the string of missions that helped ensconce California as a colonial outpost for Spain — was a great believer in self-inflicted congestion as a form of human penance. Serra, who suffered from oozing, pulsating, suppurating sores up and down his legs, famously chose to walk when the means of riding — either a horse or an ass — were readily at his disposal. Because of this theologically dubious precedent, Californians have been paying the price ever since in the form of egregiously long commute times.
The Monte-snootians have wisely cast themselves as David embroiled in yet another classic David ’n’ Goliath showdown, begging the question whether anyone in the past 2,000 years has cast themselves as the Goliath. Only in Santa Barbara could a guy, Ron Pulice, who used to own a company that built freeways in Arizona, or Jack Overall — another guy who used to own a company, which printed Hawaiian Punch labels — construe themselves as Davids. Their argument is that by retaining the existing left-hand-turn off-ramps, the whole freeway-widening project can be completed in considerably less time for considerably less money, with much less disruption to the community at large. What imbues this group with automatic credibility — aside from the fact that these Davids could hire the former head of the Federal Highway Administration to do some consulting work — is the fact that they’re going up against Caltrans, now reeling from a massive debacle over seismic reconstruction of the bridge connecting Oakland to San Francisco.
For the past three years, Caltrans’s position has been adamantly unswerving; there shall be no left-lane exits. Left-turn exits, they contend, defy driver expectation and as such are inherently unsafe. Should the left-lane exit be allowed to remain, Caltrans could and would be blown to smithereens by the first accident-prone motorists capable of hiring a well-schooled ambulance chaser. That argument has obvious appeal. I saw it firsthand while driving last Friday night to Carpinteria. Some yahoo in the right-hand lane suddenly discovered he needed to get into the left lane to make his exit and cut in front of me, leaving a cushion of about six centimeters. It was exactly the sort of stupid heedless stunt I might have done if given half a chance. Somehow, my brain reverted to that state of lizard-consciousness where panic does not exist, and I — yes, amazingly and heroically — managed to prevent a 16-car pileup. More specifically, Caltrans says the left-turn exits at Montecito are 1.5 times as risky as the statewide average. The ’Snooties counter that the left-turn exits can, in fact, be engineered to achieve state safety standards and note that the two Montecito exits rank among the top three safest in the county. They are now attempting to achieve yet another delay of game by introducing — at the last possible second — a brand-new engineering report for which they paid $100,000. This report comes at the tail-end of the last six-month delay they secured to enable SBCAG and Caltrans to respond to their alternative plan, which, incidentally, they have since walked away from.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a debate, but Caltrans is freaking. For good cause. The last time Caltrans tried to widen Highway 101 through Santa Barbara — back in the 1990s — Montecito killed those plans in their tracks. Those plans, for the record, were god-awful, and Caltrans’s response to native insurrection even worse. To quell the current unrest, Caltrans is dispatching its executive director, Malcolm Dougherty, to Santa Barbara this Thursday. By any measurement — even geologic — that’s huge. No one living can remember the last time anything so momentous has happened, and the dead aren’t talking. Dougherty’s message — to be delivered unto the board of SBCAG, Santa Barbara’s alphabet soup of a secret government that dispenses hundreds of millions of state and federal transportation dollars a year — can be boiled down to two letters: N-O. Dougherty is also expected to put the natives on notice that he will be forced to take his ball and go home with it if they don’t behave. That means the four hours of daily congestion we now experience on the 11-mile stretch of 101 slated for widening will soon expand to 11 hours a day. It’s a nice bluff. The fact is Caltrans can’t walk away. This stretch of road poses the worst congestion in all of Caltrans’s District Five. It needs fixing. And SBCAG itself is paying fully one-third of the $450 million it will cost to widen the freeway using funds generated by a sales tax county residents voted to collect from themselves for just this purpose. Money talks and Dougherty can’t really walk. I don’t pretend to know what kind of face-saving kabuki theater will unfold this Thursday as David goes eyeball to eyeball with Goliath. I just hope someone remembers to bring the popcorn.
POODLE POSTSCRIPT: From time to time, I lard too much spit on my spitball and the pitch gets away from me. Such was the case with this week’s column. In my haste to pursue side tangents about Father Junipero Serra and his superating leg sores, I sacrificed the space needed to inject some much needed perspective into the controversy over the freeway widening project now before us. So let me do so now. As irritating and self-important as Montecito activists can undeniably be, the community has been exceedingly well-served by their involvement in the Highway 101 widening project.
That’s because there are few bureaucratic entities on the planet bigger and more powerful than Caltrans. With Caltrans, its way is the highway. Embedded into Caltrans’s cultural DNA is a powerful mixture of mother-knows-best superiority and raw engineering arrogance. Making matters worse, Caltrans is currently facing a multitude of extremely demanding challenges and, like all state agencies, lacks the funding needed to get the jobs done. In that context, the proper sensitivity to community concerns frequently gets lost in the shuffle.
Common Sense 101—the name adopted by the Montecito activists—has seen to it this has not happened. Regardless of the merits of its proposals to keep the two left-turn exit lanes by Montecito, the group has sufficient muscle, clout, money, connections, arrogance, and audacity to push back. Because of their involvement, Caltrans has been forced to give its 11-mile plans for widening Highway 101 a much more thorough inspection. Out of that second look, new design and engineering modifications have emerged that collectively promise to reduce the construction time and cost.
As to the left-turn exit ramps, I remain ambivalent. One one hand, it seems intuitively obvious that because left turn exits are not the norm, they challenge driver expectations and are inherently more dangerous. As noted above, I have seen it in action. But having sat through the SBCAG meeting referenced above, I also saw Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider elicit an acknowledgment from Caltrans pope Malcolm Dougherty that the Sheffield exit has had zero accidents and thus falls well within the statewide average.
The other exit—to Coast Village Road—is admittedly another matter. Caltrans states the accident rate there is one-a-and-a-half times higher than the statewide average. That should be of genuine concern. At the SBCAG meeting, the quavery-voiced engineer hired by the Commonsense 101 crowd has raised the possibility—and more than a merely hypothetical one—that this left-turn exit could be re-engineered and reconfigured to bring its accident rates down to the statewide average. Maybe so and maybe not. But I’m open to the idea. And so, too, should be the community at large and Caltrans itself. The chief advantage of the left-turn exit is time and cost. Common Sense 101 contends that the savings to both will be substantial if the left-turn exits are retained, maybe by a factor as high as $45 million.
I’m not saying this is true. I am saying any figure with six zeros to the left of the decimal point is worth taking a serious look at.
The meeting was long and complicated. Dougherty came down from Sacramento and told the 13-member board of SBCAG “No” in no uncertain terms, more times than I have fingers and toes. No, he said, he would not ever approve a freeway widening plan that retains the left-turn lanes, and neither would anyone who ever worked for him. But as Lompoc Mayor John Linn retorted, Caltrans directors come and go, and Dougherty would not always be in charge. Linn was one of the seven SBCAG boardmembers—the slimmest of possible majorities—who voted to include the left-lane exit alternative in the $450 million project’s environmental impact report anyway. Given that Caltrans insisted this alternative is not viable, it’s not clear exactly what this means. From where I sat, it definitely does not mean the Montecito alternative is alive and kicking. But it does mean it’s not dead.
For all the real details on what happened, stay tuned for Independent reporter Chris Meagher’s upcoming article on the subject.