As of late, the trend with some journalists seems to be that stories should be written to fit a preconceived narrative, and as a result, facts become a secondary concern at best and a bother at times. There’s also the trend to repeat erroneous information as fact, just because it appeared on the Internet. The Highway 101 Widening Project seems to be no exception. Ann Louise Bardach makes many claims that are untrue in her “Bare-Knuckle Politics — Santa Barbara–Style” opinion piece. You would think that a PEN Award–winning journalist would check her facts a little more closely before publishing.
Here’s the big picture on this issue. If we move forward with the 101 Highway Widening Project as proposed, in 20 years the highway will be widened, local traffic will be worse, and we will have to tell voters that we don’t have the funds to pay for reducing congestion because we already spent our local money on a state highway.
Now, I will respond to just a few of Bardach’s many over-the-top and inaccurate claims.
Perhaps the most absurd claim is that questioning or criticizing the design, adequacy, or funding structure of the project as proposed will somehow result in a loss of funds. Bardach writes, “Others fret that they might convince Governor Brown and Caltrans to tell Santa Barbara to take a hike (literally) and give the millions to one of dozens of supplicating communities desperate for highway loot.”
This is the fact: Neither Caltrans nor any other agency outside Santa Barbara County has given any money for this project — zero dollars. The only money for the 101 as currently designated comes from S.B. County taxpayers in the form of Measure A monies and reimbursements from the state of our gas taxes. These total roughly $310,000,000 (Measure A for $140M + STIP and gas tax $170M = $310M). That’s it. The STIP (State Transportation Improvement Program), or gas tax, funds come only from the South County, and the $170 million is 100 percent of those funds for decades. The SBCAG Board decided this after voters approved Measure A. There is no state money that Governor Brown or Caltrans could take away from Santa Barbara. Period.
Next issue. Bardach writes that somehow, even though we’ve been spending gas-tax dollars on local projects for many years, we can no longer do so. She repeats an incorrect statement by writing “the mayor’s colleagues reminded her that ‘state and federal gas-tax funds that are being used as a portion of the funding for the widening cannot be used for local road maintenance.’”
Gas taxes are used for local projects, allowing other maintenance funds to go further. Even The Santa Barbara Independent’s Nick Welsh reported in a story on January 15, 2014, that in the City of Santa Barbara alone, “they [gas tax funds] were used to build the new Loma Alta sidewalk, one of the best public works projects in eons. They were also used to resurface upper Chapala Street with new quieter rubberized asphalt. Likewise, the bike lane on Mission Street and the new sidewalks on Cabrillo Hill.” In addition, the Santa Barbara County 2012-13 Road Maintenance Annual Plan (RdMAP) lists state gas-tax revenues as part of the primary funding sources (see page 26).
The use of all our STIP and gas-tax funds for the 101 is too great a sacrifice for South Coast communities. While I’ve been saying this for the past two years, I wish I had spoken out five years ago, when the original investment plan was first presented to the SBCAG board, even though I was not on the board at the time.
The SBCAG board needs to amend the Investment Plan.
Bardach’s next claim is in regard to what transpired at a closed session of the Santa Barbara City Council. She writes, “Then, in late September, her own City Council voted down 5-1 Schneider’s request to sue SBCAG.” I cannot divulge what happened in closed session, but it is obvious by now that the City of Santa Barbara did not sue Caltrans. Further, it is a fact that the closed session she references did not have any reportable action. In other words, there was no public statement about who voted for what, if anything. Instead, Bardach chooses to repeat information without confirming its accuracy or where it originated. But, hey, someone wrote it on the Internet.
Finally, there’s the whole 1st Amendment issue. Bardach writes, “Last month, members of SBCAG and the public told Schneider she needed to recuse herself from any legal proceedings regarding the 101. To the jaw-dropping astonishment of all, she refused, although she had demanded that SBCAG staffer and Santa Barbara City Councilmember Gregg Hart recuse himself on 101 issues before the City Council — with a much less significant conflict of interest.”
In fact, there’s a big difference between my participation as an elected official on a public policy issue and Councilmember Hart’s common-law conflict of interest, as both a member of the City Council and an employee of SBCAG.
Councilmember Hart recused himself on the advice of the City Attorney. Contrast this with SBCAG’s legal counsel, who stated publicly in not just one but two SBCAG board meetings that I do not have a conflict of interest. My free speech right to disagree with the majority of the SBCAG board’s opinions does not disqualify me from participating on that board on a matter of important public policy.
I know the Highway 101 Widening Project is complicated and at times can be frustrating; however, the more one learns about the details and the implications of the project as proposed, the more alarming the concerns become. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and simply hope for the best. We must fight to ensure that this project is in our community’s interests.