In 1996, the idea of expanding both sides of Highway 101 to three lanes from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria was shut down by community members who argued that extra lanes weren’t necessary. Today, no one can make that argument, as traffic jams that stretch — which is used heavily by both daily commuters and people traveling up and down California — more than four hours per day, with experts expecting that to grow to 11 hours by 2040. Instead, the question is: How do we widen 101 best?
Much of the work is already done, with three lanes already in place from Milpas Street to Cabrillo Boulevard and more additions currently underway from Carpinteria to Mussel Shoals. But the bottleneck persists in Montecito, the last two-lane leg of highway between Goleta and Ventura. As Caltrans, the state transportation agency that oversees 50,000 miles of Golden State highway, finalizes designs for the 10.9-mile project from Cabrillo to Bailard Avenue in Carp, a group called Common Sense 101 has arisen to fight against the state’s preferred alternative, which, among other changes, would eliminate the left-hand ramps that have served the Hot Springs-Cabrillo and Sheffield Drive exits for decades.
The group, made up mainly of Montecito residents, says that Caltrans’s cookie-cutter plan is too expensive ($60 million more than necessary), too extensive (taking twice as long as it should), and too disruptive, and that construction is bound to seriously impact surface-street traffic and that the finished product will greatly reduce views and other associated charms of driving 101 through the tony town. Already spending more than $100,000 on its campaign so far, Common Sense 101 has nabbed former U.S. secretary of transportation Mary Peters as a consultant, directly lobbied Governor Jerry Brown, had Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom write a letter on its behalf, and hired an engineering firm to develop a better plan. Central to that plan is retaining the left-hand on- and off-ramps, but it also seeks to keep carpool lanes out of Montecito, improve the San Ysidro Road southbound off-ramp, and reconfigure the confusing Olive Mill and Coast Village Road intersection.
But after more than 1,600 hours of staff time and $175,000 spent to analyze the Common Sense 101 plan, Caltrans determined that the ideas just weren’t feasible alternatives. Last Thursday, Sacramento sent the director of Caltrans to town to iterate that point for the board of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), the special transportation agency overseen by all five county supervisors as well as representatives from every city in the county. Faced with the rising criticism, Caltrans had retooled its design somewhat by last week, cutting expected construction time nearly in half from four years to two-and-change, trimming the budget, and keeping both lanes and ramps open throughout.
Yet Caltrans’s changes and warnings didn’t sway the SBCAG board, which voted to grant Common Sense 101’s requests, specifically to consider moving the carpool lanes south of Sheffield, include the alternative plan in the environmental report, and recirculate the draft report if necessary. The project, which is expected to cost between $345 million and $455 million, is ultimately Caltrans’s baby, and the state agency’s representatives explained that the alternatives would be included anyway and that the related components currently in the draft form had already been deemed infeasible. But since SBCAG controls $140 million of the funding — thanks to proceeds from the increased regional sales tax that 79 percent of countywide voters approved via Measure A in 2008 — the board’s vote was still a symbolic victory for the group, which is headed by Jack Overall, a member of the Montecito Planning Commission, and Ron Pulice, who happened to build his personal fortune by building highways.
What follows is a look at what’s being proposed by Caltrans, the alternative being presented by Common Sense 101, and what experts say about both.
Common Sense 101’s biggest beef with Caltrans’s plan for Highway 101 through Montecito is the elimination of left-hand ramps, but the state isn’t budging on its stance that they must go. Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty said as much to the SBCAG board in person last Thursday, when he explained, “My overriding concern is the safety of the motoring public.”
That hasn’t stopped Common Sense 101’s Jack Overall from pointing out that the South Coast’s left-hand ramps are among the safest we have, with one below the state-average accident rate and one just slightly above. According to state accident data, the southbound Sheffield Drive off-ramp is above the statewide accident average, while the on-ramp is below. At Cabrillo Boulevard, the southbound and northbound left-hand off-ramps are both slightly above the state average. Common Sense 101 cites the Federal Highway Administration’s rule that right-hand ramps can be forgone if impracticable because of “unacceptable economic, environmental, or social impacts” and argues that, after decades of use, drivers now expect the left-hand ramps. What hasn’t been analyzed is how much the accidents could go up or down should Caltrans install the right-hand ramps in those locations.
The statewide policy is to install right-hand ramps whenever possible because they are expected by drivers and therefore safer. Caltrans looked at more than 20 designs for the project, including six that kept the left-hand ramps, but none worked, according to Caltrans project manager Scott Eades, who explained, “This is a mandatory design standard.” Exceptions can be made, but that won’t happen here. Said Dougherty, “I would not sign a design exception for a left-hand off-ramp,” he said. Indeed, Caltrans hasn’t facilitated a left-hand ramp anywhere in the past 10 years.
That point started to sink in with some officials last Thursday. County Supervisor Janet Wolf even compared the constantly repeated messages to raising a child. “The answer is no, the answer is no,” she said. “What I keep hearing from Mr. Dougherty is, ‘The answer is no.’ So are we going to keep hitting our heads against the wall?” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino agreed, saying that he didn’t want to spend more money on studying left-hand ramps if the answer from Caltrans was just going to be no anyway.
But what if, Lompoc Mayor John Linn asked, SBCAG presented a compelling case for left-hand ramps? In perhaps last week’s most dire threat, Dougherty replied, “Then we might decide whether to spend the money with you, I guess.”
Caltrans is proposing part-time, continuous-access High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV), a k a carpool, lanes from Cabrillo Boulevard to the Ventura County line. Those lanes, say Caltrans officials, help secure federal and state funding, work to relieve congestion, and fulfill the regional transportation vision promised by Measure A.
Carpooling would be required in those lanes Monday-Friday, 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. All vehicles could drive in the lanes at all other times, while vehicles would be able to access or exit the HOV lane at any point.
But this anytime-in, anytime-out approach is dangerous, say Common Sense 101 proponents, claiming that drivers will remain in the HOV lane until the last possible moment before cutting over to exit the freeway. They argue that the three-mile section from Cabrillo Boulevard to Sheffield Drive is very narrow and filled with too many ingresses and egresses for the HOV lane to be safe. For those reasons, they believe it will not help traffic congestion.
The coalition is hoping to eliminate HOV lanes in Montecito, pushing them south of Sheffield. They argue the point is to get people commuting from Ventura to carpool. Whether drivers decide to do so is a decision that’s made long before reaching Montecito.
CALTRANS PLANS: The corridor near Sheffield Drive is one of the most tightly constrained paths for Highway 101 in Southern California, with physical barriers including the railroad, ocean, and existing development. So Caltrans wants to reconfigure the lanes, eliminate the median planting, and instead have a single concrete barrier separating the north- and southbound lanes. “There are real trade-offs in how you create the lanes,” said Eades, explaining the impact is greater if the lanes are moved to the outside. “We’ve chosen to move to the inside.”
Though the southbound off-ramp accident rate is 1.5 accidents per million vehicle miles and the southbound on-ramp’s is below the state average at 0.8, Dougherty explained, “It’s not viable, appropriate, or responsible to retain the left-side ramps at this location.” So Caltrans would eliminate the southbound 101 left-hand on-ramp, move ramps from the median to the outside, and relocate some of the through lanes. The bridge will be reconstructed to be a single concrete barrier with the existing median removed. Retaining walls will also be built between Sheffield and Evans Avenue along the southbound lane, which the Common Sense 101 group says would block views of Shark’s Cove and Fernald Point.
COMMON SENSE 101 IDEAS: Common Sense 101 members say the Caltrans proposal for Sheffield Drive unnecessarily brings in huge amounts of fill, unnecessarily demolishes and constructs a new bridge, and constructs new on- and off-ramps going southbound that don’t need to be built. Their plan would involve minimal construction, merely adding a lane in either direction, retain a one-lane, left-side off-ramp and a one-lane, left-side on-ramp in the southbound direction, and preserve the views of Fernald Point and Shark’s Cove.
But Caltrans says for that plan to be viable, property would have to be purchased. There’s also not enough space for a vehicle to enter the southbound highway at Sheffield and safely leave to the right to get off at Evans Avenue in Summerland. Not only is Caltrans against the left-hand entrance, but currently the existing on-ramp enters from below the freeway on an uphill grade, into the fast lane, which compounds the dangers.
• LISTEN TO THE PODCAST: Chris Meagher discusses the 101-widening project on The Santa Barbara Independent’s podcast this week at independent.com/podcast.