It’s been relatively quiet these last nine months regarding the 101 Widening Project, but that is about to change. One month ago, Caltrans certified the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) the agency produced, and this document has subsequently been challenged in court.
We fully encourage and will be publicly supporting private parties who have filed lawsuits. The City of Santa Barbara is not a party to a lawsuit. We are dismayed that information pertaining to recent closed sessions apparently was leaked to the press and others. At the very least, this appears to be a breach of ethics. Worse, during the last two weeks, statements made in writing via a letter to City Hall, and verbally by Santa Barbara County Association of Governments staff, basically threatened the city by saying if the council dare challenge the EIR, then perhaps important mitigations our residents deserve will never get funded.
We know that for some our position is frustrating. We’ve heard more than once “just build it.” Our decision to speak out publicly about the inadequacies of this EIR is due to our fundamental sense of fairness. This Project as proposed is unfair to our 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.
In September 2013, the Santa Barbara City Planning Commission held a public hearing on the 101 Widening Project and unanimously voted to send a letter to Caltrans that included the statement, “Based on the inadequacy of the Draft EIR, we anticipate that Caltrans’ responses to comments will result in the disclosure of significant new information necessitating recirculation of a revised Draft EIR to allow for meaningful public review and comment.”
Since then, Caltrans has continued to change the project, including the Cabrillo interchange, in such a substantial way that a normal EIR process would require recirculation. But Caltrans, rather than working as a true partner to the local community, refused to do so.
Furthermore, according to Caltrans’s own analysis, the project as currently designed will cause delays and backups on the 101 northbound from Garden Street all the way to Patterson Avenue. This will result in increased congestion on city streets, further reducing our ability to adequately maintain our infrastructure and provide new alternative transportation options.
The current 101 widening in Ventura County was paid for entirely with state and federal dollars, and it included needed bike path and pedestrian amenities as part of the project. Contrast that to the widening project in Santa Barbara County. Not only are county residents paying $140 million off the top from the 2008 Measure A half-cent sales tax, but the South Coast communities of Goleta, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and the unincorporated areas are also sacrificing an annual $13 million that used to be for local street maintenance and repairs. Now, through at least 2040, 100 percent of that money is diverted to the 101 Widening Project. The Measure A ballot language never said that 100 percent of South Coast gas-tax funds would be sacrificed.
It gets worse if the Project moves forward as proposed, as more and more of what the voters thought Measure A would fund over 30 years — local street repair, safe-routes-to-school funding, bike and pedestrian improvements, to name a few — is actually going to be siphoned off to pay for necessary components of the project that should have been included but are not.
In addition, applications for funding toward components we know are necessary, specifically replacing the Union Pacific Bridge and creating the Olive Mill Roundabout, will now compete with other local projects.
Caltrans’s response to these needed mitigations is this: Trust us. According to Caltrans, mitigations can be done as “parallel projects,” yet the agency offers zero funding, which means if local communities want the mitigations, we’re going to be stuck footing the bill.
It would be nice to have a level of trust that everything will all somehow work out; however, we believe that past performance is indicative of future behavior. One only needs to remember that the current State Street/101 underpass is designed the way it is because Santa Barbara residents fought with Caltrans, who insisted for years on an elevated freeway over the city, totally cutting our now-vibrant downtown core in half. History has shown us that it is in our best interest to fight for good projects and oppose bad ones.
Caltrans makes a mockery of not only the South Coast but the entire California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process. How can we require private projects to abide by the requirements of CEQA when Caltrans, a state agency, openly violates it? Until Caltrans comes to the community and actually works as a true “partner,” we have to oppose this Project.