Cars Are Basic Takes on Olive Mill Road Roundabout; Roundabout Wins

Santa Barbara City Council Unanimously Rejects Appeal Contesting Validity of Environmental Review for Project

Artist rendering of Olive Mill Road roundabout | Credit: Courtesy City of Santa Barbara

The Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously this Tuesday to reject Cars Are Basic’s challenge to a major new roundabout slated for Olive Mill Road in Montecito. Historically, Cars Are Basic has taken an extremely dim view of roundabouts in general, regarding them — as they do most traffic-calming devices — as an intrusion on the transportational primacy of the automobile. In this instance, however, the proposed Olive Mill Road roundabout is designed to enable the widening of Highway 101 to accommodate more car traffic. (It would also simplify what’s now an unruly, ungainly intersection where six roads all but collide.)

Artist rendering of Olive Mill Road roundabout. | Courtesy City of Santa Barbara

According to traffic planners with City Hall and the County of Santa Barbara, the roundabout would mitigate the congestion created by all the additional traffic taking to the freeway once the widening occurs. Without the new roundabout, traffic planners contended northbound motorists seeking to exit the freeway into Montecito could find themselves dangerously backed up on Highway 101 during morning rush hour.

Scott Wenz of Cars Are Basic objected that the environmental review for the proposed roundabout failed to consider the greenhouse-gas emissions caused by all the additional mileage driven by all extra cars on the road — “induced vehicle travel” in planning speak — that would not be there were it not for the freeway widening. According to new rules guiding environmental review, additional “vehicle miles traveled” must be considered. But those rules were adopted only this past July. Because the environmental impact report for the freeway widening was certified in 2014, city traffic planners argued Tuesday, the Cars Are Basic appeal was without basis.

The irony here is that those same city traffic engineers argued back in 2014 that induced vehicle travel should have been considered back then. At that time — and still today — they worried that the freeway widening would impose an undue burden on city streets as motorists, frustrated by rush-hour congestion caused in part by induced vehicle travel, seek refuge on the side streets of Montecito and Santa Barbara. The Olive Mill roundabout was, in fact, designed to mitigate against just that. But technically, jurisdictionally, and financially, they are two separate projects. 

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On Tuesday, the same city traffic planners also insisted that the roundabout should be evaluated based only on its own environmental footprints, not those inflicted by the freeway-widening project overall. The mayor and all six councilmembers were in no mood for ironic introspection and concurred. (Cars Are Basic has just two members.)

Without the roundabout, the level of service at the Olive Mill intersection is expected to go from Level C to Level F; C denotes minimal delays, while F suggests extreme congestion and considerable delays. Construction for the roundabout is expected to begin sometime in the next two to three years and cost anywhere from $7 million to $10 million. 

This summer, the roundabout project was the focus of a contentious and prickly eight-hour meeting between the Santa Barbara Planning Commission and the Montecito Planning Commission. Both bodies ultimately unanimously approved the project, but not before hearing from neighbors who complained that the loss of 50 trees would destroy a key sound and visual buffer between their property and the freeway. Those trees will be replaced by a ratio of three-to-one, but it will take time for them to mature into the canopy that exists today. In addition, 30,000 square feet of new landscaping will be installed. 

CORRECTION: The eight-hour meeting this summer was between the Santa Barbara Planning Commission and the Montecito Planning Commission, not the Montecito Association. Also, Cars Are Basic has two members, not one.

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