Debate over Caltrans’ plans to widen an often congested stretch of freeway between Montecito and the Ventura County line frequently achieved decibel levels in recent years sufficient to make one’s ears bleed; but with just two days to go before the legal deadline expires to challenge these plans — which will cost about $425 million to bring to fruition — no clear challenger has emerged, and an almost eerie silence has descended upon what had once been rancorous discourse. Technically, the deadline is for the adequacy of the environmental impact report (EIR) for the proposed freeway widening and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. That deadline is Saturday night, but could be pushed till Monday.
The past two weeks, however, have been anything but silent. Two weeks ago, the Santa Barbara City Council voted in closed session to sue Caltrans over the adequacy of the EIR. That vote was 5-to-1-to-1, with Councilmember Gregg Hart abstaining because of a conflict of interest and Councilmember Cathy Murillo casting the only vote in opposition to the litigation. Those deliberations were held in closed session to discuss “potential litigation” and was so noticed for the public on the council agenda.
The following week — this week — the council revisited the matter, again during a closed session in which “potential litigation” was discussed. What happened in that meeting and what new information was presented remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the council reversed its prior decision, opting not to sue Caltrans over the adequacy of its environmental document.
While such deliberations are the stuff of insider baseball of the wonkiest variety, their implications are of huge consequence for the millions of motorists using that 12-mile stretch of Highway 101 to get from points A to B.
High ranking planners, administrators, and elected officials within City Hall have long complained that the environmental analysis conducted by Caltrans for the freeway and HOV lane was fatally flawed, drastically understating key negative impacts and failing to include vital mitigations that might make the project function better. Leading this charge has been Mayor Helene Schneider, former city administrator Jim Armstrong, and the entire Planning Commission. Among their gripes has been the failure of Caltrans to include provisions to widen the Union Pacific railroad bridge by the Bird Refuge to incorporate an additional lane for cars, plus pedestrian and bicycle accommodations to handle the overflow of traffic queuing up for the freeway. In addition, the document fails to include a roundabout to ameliorate existing traffic problems at the Olive Mill interchanges, which will be exacerbated by greater traffic flow. Beyond that, city officials contend the environmental document fails to acknowledge how the increased traffic generated by the freeway widening will cause greater congestion — not less — at seven key downtown intersections during rush hour. Caltrans officials have shrugged off this issue, countering that far more motorists will benefit by the increased flow than those who will be adversely affected by the increased congestion. As to the railroad bridge and roundabout, Caltrans and members of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) board have voted to pursue both separately as funding allows. City officials have long dismissed the likelihood of such funding being found as a hope and a prayer, noting that funding for the freeway-widening project itself is $100 million short.
To the extent politics is the art of the practical, the council’s decision to not sue was artistic. At least somewhat. None of the battles are new, and partisans of both sides have made their voices heard at the governor’s office in Sacramento. Not once, but twice did Caltrans Chief Malcolm Dougherty come to Santa Barbara to put elected officials on notice that these changes could not be accommodated. At the time, Dougherty was even more emphatic about rejecting demands by Common Sense 101— made up of Montecito residents — that Montecito’s existing left-hand off-ramps be maintained.
Around City Hall, there’s a clear conviction that the environmental analysis suffers from a terminally soft underbelly and could not withstand legal challenge. Caltrans officials, when drafting the report, assumed such litigation would happen, and crafted it with that expectation. The $64 million question confronting city decision makers, however, is what they could hope to accomplish by such a challenge. Given the political realities, they concluded, not much more than delay. That in turn would engender even greater enmity by the SBCAG board, which voted 11-2 this past summer in favor of the project as proposed. Mayor Schneider was one of those two. To delay the project longer would further alienate the SBCAG board members on whose good will the railroad-bridge work — $20 million — and the Olive Mill roundabout will depend.
In this mix, City Hall qualifies as a bona fide 900-pound gorilla. But so, too, is Common Sense 101, made up of exceedingly wealthy, influential Montecito residents with the capacity to wage protracted legal warfare. Thus far, however, there’s been little indication that Common Sense 101 would sue and quiet mutterings that it would not. Jeremy Lindaman, the consultant hired by the organization to wage war against the HOV lane and preserve the left-lane on-ramps, did not return a phone call for comment. Neither did Mayor Schneider, who retains Lindaman as her political campaign consultant.
Members of the Fernald Point Homeowners Association have threatened to sue if the project is not changed to include a protective sound wall. That concession may be granted grudgingly, but it no doubt will be given to preclude any further loss of time.
Finally, attorney Marc Chytilo — who enjoys a formidable courtroom reputation as a shredder of environmental documents — has been reportedly making noises suggestive of such a legal action, seeking pertinent documents from various bureaucratic entities. Whether Chytilo will file a last-minute lawsuit has yet to be seen. He declined to comment on what his plans are.