Congressional candidate and Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider took exception with a mailer sent out by her chief Democratic rival, County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, charging it was misleading about their true differences about the widening of Highway 101, hypocritical, and that its tone could depress voter turnout. In a makeshift-guerilla press conference held between the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge and the Union Pacific railroad bridge over Cabrillo Boulevard, Schneider blasted Carbajal for sending out a campaign mailer charging that she wanted to add $28 million to the cost of the freeway-widening project and delay it on behalf “of a small number of wealthy donors,” putting their needs ahead of the thousands of motorists stuck in gridlock traffic.
Carbajal and Schneider have differed sharply over the freeway-widening project and the $28 million in question refers to the estimated cost of widening the Union Pacific bridge by the Cabrillo Boulevard freeway on-ramps to alleviate what everyone has agreed will become a significant traffic pinch point and bottleneck. Schneider has insisted that the bridge widening be included as part of the freeway-widening project description, which would give the widening standing for any available funds allocated to the project. But Carbajal has also supported the bridge widening, Schneider stated, making it disingenuous and misleading him for him to accuse her of wanting to make the project more expensive. “Here we go again,” said Schneider, “another example of cheap political tricks and Washington politics at its worst.”
While Carbajal and political action committees affiliated with the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have been bombarding mailboxes and airwaves with advertisements targeting Republican congressional candidate — and California Assemblymember — Katcho Achadjian for his opposition to abortion rights and funding for Planned Parenthood, the Highway 101 mailer is the first instance of Carbajal attacking Schneider by name.
Schneider pointed out that Carbajal, in fact, voted repeatedly in favor of the bridge widening in his capacity as member of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG). “The question to Supervisor Carbajal is whether you support the bridge widening or not?” she demanded.
That fact is uncontestably true, but as with almost everything related the freeway-widening effort, infinitely more complicated. In a key distinction, Carbajal voted to pursue a separate but parallel project path to get the bridge widened, and not to include the widening as part of the freeway expansion project. The estimated cost of widening the freeway already exceeds the funds available to pay for it. To add additional costs — $28 million — has been bitterly opposed by Caltrans and by SBCAG staff.
For Schneider — and for the command staff at City Hall — the parallel-path approach qualifies as déjà vu all over again. Fifteen years ago, SBCAG made similar promises about the railroad bridge that were never made good. At numerous council meetings over the years, Mayor Schneider has argued against the parallel approach advocated by Carbajal. “Fool me once, shame on you,” she has said numerous times. “Fool me twice, shame on me.”
While Carbajal insisted in his flyer that Schneider stood “virtually alone” in making such demands, the truth is, as always, more complex. Backing her in recent years was the entire Planning Commission for the City of Santa Barbara, former city manager Jim Armstrong, current City Manager Paul Casey, and City Transportation Planner Rob Dayton. City Hall has long argued that the freeway-widening project is necessary but that key ingredients — like the bridge widening and roundabouts at Olive Mill Road — have been left out. In addition, Schneider and City Hall have claimed that the additional northbound traffic — from Ventura and Carpinteria — generated and allowed by the new and wider freeway will wreak havoc at 10 city intersections. Those impacts — plus any alternatives and mitigations — Schneider and city staff have argued, needed to have been included in the freeway-widening environmental impact report. They were not, and a quasi-fictional environmental organization sued in response. Schneider wrote an op-ed endorsing the lawsuit, precipitating — and in some cases exacerbating — a bitter falling out between her and Carbajal, who endorsed the path embraced by SBCAG, and many in the Democratic Party establishment.
Schneider took exception to the Carbajal mailer’s suggestion she was representing the interests of wealthy Montecitans at the expense of working families. Schneider noted that several staunch Carbajal supporters also sued SBCAG and Caltrans over the freeway widening — but over the lack of sound walls by Padaro Lane rather than the issues highlighted by Schneider. Because of the six-figure donations from these plaintiffs, Carbajal had been notified he could not participate in closed-door settlement discussions involving that litigation as a member of SBCAG because of a conflict of interest.
Lastly, Schneider noted that Carbajal had run a TV commercial taking exception to the personal attack campaign tactics deployed by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, noting that was not the Central Coast style. Schneider said the attack mailer sent out by Carbajal makes him a hypocrite. Neither Carbajal or his campaign responded directly to that charge, but one political strategist especially vocal in his support for Carbajal noted, with theatrical incredulity, “Really? She’s comparing Carbajal to Trump?”
As for the broader critique leveled by Schneider, Carbajal stated, “I agree that the Union Pacific bridge should be replaced. I do not agree, however, with Mayor Schneider’s position that this bridge replacement should hold up the entire 101 freeway-widening project that our region so desperately needs.”
Again, as with everything related to the freeway-widening proposal, the facts are complicated things. Judge Thomas Anderle found early this year that the freeway-widening environmental report was, in fact, deficient on many — but not all — points articulated by Schneider. He ordered that the report be recirculated and the points relating to the congestion the wider freeway will inflict on Santa Barbara city intersections be addressed. But given that the basic design plans for the freeway widening remain many months away from completion, there’s little evidence that any of this haggling over environmental details has actually slowed down the freeway widening one second.