An 11th hour and 59th minute legal challenge was filed by a brand-new organization attacking the legal credibility of Caltrans’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the much-debated freeway-widening and carpool-lane plan between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. While the Transportation Futures Committee may draw blanks among the environmental community, the group’s attorney, Marc Chytilo, is exceptionally well-known and has enjoyed a remarkable string of successes attacking the adequacy of such documents.
Chytilo explained he put the organization together himself last week and linked to an existing legal entity known as the Committee for Land, Air, Water, and Species. He declined to reveal the identities of the organization’s three principals — explaining he needed to clear it with them first — but said they all reside in the City of Santa Barbara, and all had submitted letters of protest in response to the project EIR, which Caltrans deemed complete a month ago.
By law, any challenge had to be filed within 30 days. That was Monday. As of last Friday, it was unclear if any major challenge was in the offing. Common Sense 101, the high-profile Montecito organization that had taken its opposition to the freeway-widening plan all the way to the governor’s office, had bowed out after this May when their concerns were rejected by a vote of 11-2 by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG). Common Sense 101 spokesperson Ron Pulice said any such appeal should properly be filed by a governmental entity.
Two weeks ago, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 5-1 in closed session to launch such an attack, but the following week, the council changed its mind and stood down. Councilmember Cathy Murillo cast the lone vote not to sue in the earlier meeting, and Councilmember Gregg Hart — a high-ranking official with SBCAG, a cosponsor of the freeway widening — recused himself.
Chytilo’s unhappiness with the EIR does not reflect all of City Hall’s concerns, but it focuses on a key issue raised by Mayor Helene Schneider and a majority of councilmembers, its chief traffic planner Rob Dayton, City Administrator Paul Casey, and all of its planning commissioners. All have expressed alarm at the increased congestion that will be created when the additional traffic carried by the new and wider freeway backs up in downtown Santa Barbara between Mission Street and Las Positas Road.
Nine intersections that are already operating at substandard levels will be adversely affected by the new traffic volumes, Chytilo charged. At that point, many motorists will seek refuge by taking to the city’s side streets, causing them to become more crowded and dangerous. While much of this is acknowledged in the EIR, he said, it was not formally denoted as an adverse environmental impact. Instead, the document concluded that the localized impacts will be vastly outweighed by the much broader benefit the project will create in reduced drive times.
That response, according to Chytilo, is the Achilles’ heel of the $450 million project. Under California environmental law, he said, the EIR had to identify project alternatives that minimize such adverse impacts. But if such impacts are not listed, then presumably Caltrans doesn’t have to address them. The same logic, he said, holds true for the legal requirement that adverse impacts be mitigated to the maximum extent feasible. Only after those options have been tried and exhausted, Chytilo declared, can governmental entities make findings of overriding consideration. Caltrans, he claimed, effectively made such findings, though without examining mitigations or alternatives.
Aside from such procedural legalities, Chytilo said his substantive beef with the project is when all the construction is complete by 2040 — and all the money spent — traffic will be worse, not better than it is now. Any money that could have possibly gone to alternative transportation solutions, he charged, will have been gobbled up by the most massive — if not most expensive — construction project to hit the South Coast in decades.
Moments after Chytilo confirmed he had filed his last-minute challenge, Mayor Schneider along with Councilmember Bendy White issued a joint communication announcing their support for the lawsuit. “We fully encourage and will be publically supporting private parties who have filed the lawsuit,” they said. In her written comments, Schneider denied being a member of the new organization.
After last May’s SBCAG vote in favor of the Caltrans project, many thought the opposition had been put to rest. “We know that for some, our position is frustrating,” Schneider wrote. “We’ve heard more than once, ‘Just build it.’” She said she was acting out of a sense of fairness. “This project as proposed is unfair to the constituents in the City of Santa Barbara. It is unfair to county taxpayers, it is unfair to residents of the South Coast, and it is unfair to the commuters who use Highway 101.”
Schneider’s was a bold and confrontational move sure to antagonize many elected officials eager to see the project move forward. Adding additional intrigue, her longtime political advisor Jeremy Lindaman worked as a paid political consultant for Common Sense 101. That group was most intent on retaining the left-lane off-ramps. Caltrans chief Malcolm Dougherty flew to Santa Barbara twice in one year to declare that under no circumstances would he allow left-lane off-ramps to remain. They were, he said, inherently confusing to drivers, hence more unsafe.
Although Schneider’s position at times got confused with that of Common Sense 101’s, she had other fish to fry throughout the long and tortuous debate taking place earlier this year. She — and all of City Hall — insisted that the railroad bridge by the Bird Refuge needed to be widened as part of the freeway project. If not, she contended, the narrow bridge would create a significant pinch point for traffic on Cabrillo Boulevard seeking to get on the freeway.
Likewise, she argued that the project should include a new roundabout for the Olive Mill Road on- and off-ramps. Caltrans balked at both, insisting these should be regarded as separate projects. SBCAG offered to help push for the bridge widening and to look for funding. Schneider objected no funding for either exists, and given the overwhelming expense of the freeway widening, there’s not likely going to be. In her letter, Schneider accused unnamed members of the SBCAG staff of threatening such funding if the council “dared to challenge the EIR.”
Privately, many in City Hall have expressed concerns about waging war with Caltrans over the widening plan, especially in light of the May vote. At that time, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblymember Das Williams came out and strongly endorsed the Caltrans plan. In addition, Sara Miller McCune — a major mover and shaker in left-leaning political and philanthropic circles — also came out in favor of it.
Attacking the environmental document could only antagonize political leaders upon whose support the ancillary projects depend. No one has been more outspoken in their criticisms of the Caltrans plan than traffic planner Rob Dayton, not even Schneider. Dayton declined to comment on anything said behind closed doors, explaining to do so would be a violation of the law. “But if someone were to ask me, do I think it’s a good idea to challenge the EIR? I would say no,” he said. “It won’t accomplish any of our goals.”
Caltrans fully expected a challenge from the outset, given the heat attending the public debate. Now that the lawsuit has been filed, Caltrans has clammed up. Spokesperson Jim Shivers did, however, release the following comment: “Caltrans has not yet seen the lawsuit but stands behind its recently completed Final Environmental Impact Report on the U.S. 101 South Coast HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) Lanes Project. We believe this project will improve the lives of thousands of people who live in Santa Barbara County and travel this major highway every day.”