Mayor Plays Power Politics

Schneider Goes Toe-to-Toe with Caltrans Over Freeway-Widening

<b>ROUNDABOUT:</b> Mayor Helene Schneider says keeping Montecito’s left-lane exit ramps is back “on the table” as a result of her meeting with Caltrans execs.
Paul Wellman (file)

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider reported that Caltrans chief Malcolm Dougherty was recently persuaded to reopen the possibility of retaining the left-lane exit ramps by the Hot Springs Road and Cabrillo Boulevard exchanges along Highway 101, despite Dougherty’s unequivocally vehement and repeated statements to the contrary at a public meeting in Santa Barbara this May.

At that meeting, Dougherty came down from Sacramento specifically to hammer home the point that he would never approve the retention of the left-lane off-ramps as part of the freeway-widening project because he said they’re inherently unsafe. But on August 7, Schneider sent an email to her fellow boardmembers with the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) quoting Dougherty as telling her at a meeting held in Sacramento in late July that he would agree “to put everything on the table.” She added in her email, “I interpret this statement to mean the retention of the left-hand ramps is ‘on the table.’”

On July 27, Schneider flew to Sacramento to attend a meeting arranged by Common Sense 101 activists Jack Overall and Ron Pulice with Dougherty, recently appointed Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly, and Jerry Brown staff representative Jacob Appelsmith. Common Sense 101 is a group of politically well-connected Montecito residents who’ve spent the past two years lobbying Caltrans, SBCAG, and anyone who will listen that the freeway-widening project can be built faster, cheaper, and just as safely by keeping the left-lane off-ramps and have adamantly opposed constructing right-lane ramps as favored by Caltrans. Thus far, however, they have been unable to convince either Caltrans or SBCAG staff. Schneider’s campaign manager, Jeremy Lindaman, also does political consulting work for Common Sense 101.

Schneider, now running for reelection as mayor, described the meeting as “intense,” stating that Dougherty came out arguing strongly against the left-lane off-ramps, pointing out that the collision rates at the Hot Springs-Cabrillo exchanges are higher than the statewide average. Schneider said she countered that the traffic collision data on which Dougherty relied needed more precise evaluation. Some of the higher numbers, she said, could be attributed to the freeway construction taking place. And further review, she said, was needed to determine how many of the collisions were caused by the left-lane exits and how many by congestion in general. She added that Dougherty and other Caltrans executives had twice approved the retention of the left-lane ramps in the last 10 years as part of the improvements done on Highway 101 already.

Perhaps more troubling to the state transportation chiefs, Schneider revealed that new studies have demonstrated that traffic congestion by the Montecito exits will get much worse under the freeway-widening plans embraced by Caltrans, not better. She said these studies show the level of service at these intersections will plunge from what traffic engineers describe as levels A/B down to D/E. In light of this new information, Schneider said she put the statewide transportation chiefs on notice that she didn’t see how the City of Santa Barbara could issue Caltrans the Coastal Development Permit needed to build the freeway-widening project.

While Schneider and City Hall traffic engineers have expressed skepticism over Caltrans’s insistence on right-lane ramps in the past, they have been most passionately outspoken that the proposed freeway-widening project needed to include plans to widen the Union Pacific railroad bridge over Cabrillo Boulevard. Without such a bridge, they have argued, traffic attempting to get onto the freeway from Cabrillo Boulevard will be mired in endless gridlock. Such improvements had been promised before, Schneieder has said, but never delivered. When she pressed Dougherty at the meeting in Sacramento, she said, he did not budge.

When pressed if that meant left-lane ramps were now “on the table” as Schneider had recalled, Lacy stated, “I can only tell you what I’ve already told you.”

Neither Dougherty nor his spokesperson were available to comment on Schneider’s version of events. Gareth Lacy, spokesperson for Brian Kelly and the California Transportation Agency, said his agency is committed to working with local officials to ensure maximum safety and mobility. To that end, he said, Dougherty and Kelly had made a commitment to get together at an unspecified future date with Schneider and other local representatives to discuss in greater detail the accident collision data. When pressed if that meant left-lane ramps were now “on the table” as Schneider had recalled, Lacy stated, “I can only tell you what I’ve already told you.”

Schneider said she sent a memo to Governor Brown’s representative at the meeting, dated August 7, memorializing her recollection of what had transpired. This recollection, she said, included not just a further review of the safety data but the left-lane exits, as well. He replied, “The letter you attached does a good job summarizing the issues,” adding, “There is a positive resolution somewhere, we just have to push to find it.”


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