<b>CHOKED, SMOKED, AND CROAKED: </b> The Casitas Pass freeway bridge strains under the intense demand of early-morning rush hour.
Paul Wellman

The new, bigger, wider Highway 101 bridges that will someday carry Casitas Pass Road and Linden Avenue in Carpinteria may never rival the San Francisco Bay Bridge for sheer visual wallop, but to many Carpinteria residents stranded by early-morning congestion, the $100 million expansions may bring some hint of relief.

The two projects are necessary for the Highway 101 widening to proceed; for many Carpinterians and commuters from Ventura County forced to brave intense northbound morning gridlock, the widening has long been regarded as a no-brainer. How soon relief will come, however, remains a matter of conjecture. Construction ​— ​which has yet to actually start ​— ​is scheduled to take four years. In the meantime, business owners in downtown Carpinteria are anxious about inevitable disruptions the complex endeavor will inflict on their customers and their bottom lines.

Yet this Monday morning it was all smiles and optimism as Caltrans statewide czar Malcolm Dougherty showed up with a silver shovel for the ceremonial groundbreaking event, attended by a flotilla of Carpinteria officials, 1st District County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. Actual construction won’t start for some time to come. The wheels of justice, it is said, grind exceedingly slow, but nothing compared to the pace of freeway widening.

The planning process for the new bridges commenced back in the mid-1990s. For many moons, the City of Carpinteria and Caltrans found themselves at bitter loggerheads over the design, dimension, and aesthetics of the new structures. As current city manager Dave Durflinger described it, the original Caltrans plans were “overdone and too vanilla” for Carpinteria’s taste. Eventually, the city would create a local design review board made up of various stakeholders and state engineers to hammer out an acceptable compromise; after six months of meetings around a middle school cafeteria table, a deal was hashed out.

Because the footings for the new bridges impinge upon agricultural land and creek drainage, City Hall had to amend its fundamental planning documents. That leverage ​— ​coupled with the insistence of the California Coastal Commission ​— ​requires the new project to include two new stretches of coastal bike lanes, one to the west of Santa Claus Lane and the other linking downtown Carpinteria to the Rincon. No funding, however, has been identified for these projects, which each cost in the neighborhood of $7 million.

The Rincon Trail ​— ​further along in the design review process ​— ​has twice sought statewide transportation grants and twice come up short. Whenever built, these additional lanes will help fill in key gaps in what could one day become a new and scenic coastal bikeway. Not coincidentally, a host of movers and shakers assembled last Friday to exalt at the tourist-drawing potential of the new and improved bike lanes.

This project was the joint brainchild of the City of Carpinteria’s staff and the Coastal Commission, with the encouragement of Supervisor Carbajal and Ventura Supervisor Steve Bennett, who, unlike Carbajal, actually wears Lycra and whose wife is reportedly an ardent cyclist. The group exclaimed over the growth of tourist-related businesses drawing on the Central Coastal as a destination for cycling enthusiasts. “You know what they say: Cycling is becoming the new golf,” explained Ed France, head of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition.

Many of the growing legion of cycling tourists, he said, are of advanced years and seeking vigorous activities that inflict low impact on the body. And Santa Barbara hotels are making a conspicuous point to provide bicycles for guests. The new group, France said, would promote cycling via a myriad of social media options with about $30,000 in funding collected from the public and private stakeholders meeting over the past two years. France was mindful that funding for the two new bike paths necessary to make the coastal bikeway a reality remained hypothetical. “It’s problematic,” he said. “They’ve been advertised as the smiling, happy face of the 101 widening project, and we’re going to make sure that promise is kept,” he said.

In the City of Santa Barbara, where public sentiment about the freeway widening is more complicated, City Hall remains poised to see the first draft of the revised environmental impact report for the freeway project. Early this year, Judge Thomas Anderle ruled the environmental analysis was flawed because it failed to account for the significant congestion problems the freeway-widening project would cause for 18 Santa Barbara intersections. The report prepared by Caltrans declared that congestion for those intersections should not be considered “significant” in light of the broader benefits the project would generate. Anderle disagreed. The new report is due out sometime in the next two months, and it remains to be seen how many of those impacted intersections are deemed “significant,” what alternatives are listed, and what, if any, mitigations are proposed.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on September 19 to indicate it was the City of Carpinteria, not Caltrans, that initiated the design review committee for the overpasses. Also, the city staff and state Coastal Commission created the bike paths in the plan; though Carbajal and Bennett supported the idea, they did not originate the bike paths.


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