As high-stakes showdowns go, last Thursday’s Santa Barbara Planning Commission deliberations could not have been more excruciatingly bureaucratic. But the stakes involved could not have been much higher. At issue is nothing less than the half-a-billion-dollar freeway widening slated to take place over the next 15 years between Ventura and the Fairview Avenue interchange in Goleta.
The Santa Barbara city planners unanimously insisted that Caltrans expand the project description to include a new and wider railroad crossing at Cabrillo Boulevard by the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge to accommodate not just bikes and pedestrians, but also the additional lanes of traffic the 101 widening will generate. Those lanes, they insisted, will be essential to hold the extra motorists using Cabrillo Boulevard as a de facto southbound exit ramp. Without the new lanes, they argued, traffic on Cabrillo will back up to an unacceptable level.
Likewise, they argued, the freeway-widening project must include a solution to the seven-way intersection problem now confounding drivers seeking to get on or off the freeway at Olive Mill Road. Lastly, they insisted that the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) prepared by Caltrans needed to explicitly acknowledge that the freeway widening will have a significant adverse impact on many Santa Barbara interchanges. In fact, morning motorists driving north around the Mission and Las Positas off-ramps will find peak-hour gridlock is much worse than it is now.
The current DEIR contains only one sentence alluding to this and then in only the vaguest of language. For these changes to be made, the commissioners insisted, the DEIR would need to be amended and then recirculated. That’s something Caltrans desperately wants to avoid. As it is, the EIR is already two years behind schedule, and further delays will cost the underfunded project millions of dollars. No one from Caltrans, however, attended the meeting. Perhaps that was a good thing. “I guess they were slapped down a little bit,” Planning Commissioner Michael Jordan commented afterward. Fellow Commissioner — and former mayor — Sheila Lodge put it more bluntly. “We don’t trust ’em.”
In the five-dimensional Kabuki theater attending the freeway expansion approval process, the Planning Commission meeting qualified as a mere gesture — but a deadly serious one. If the City of Santa Barbara refuses to issue Caltrans a coastal development permit for the freeway widening, then the project is dead. And as Commissioner Jordan put it, “It was clear from the meeting that if the vote for that permit were held next week, the outcome would not be favorable to Caltrans.” Despite the rhetoric, the commissioners and City Hall are on record in support of the freeway-widening project in general, just not the specific project that Caltrans has proposed. The commissioners are hoping that Caltrans engineers and decision makers get the picture before push comes to shove.
Attempting to make Caltrans’s case was Gregg Hart, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, the county super-agency that funnels millions of dollars of state and federal road funds to Santa Barbara County and the county’s seven city governments. Hart — now running for the Santa Barbara City Council — sought to dissuade the planning commissioners and city traffic engineers from their present confrontational course. By expanding the project definition to include these ancillary projects and recirculating the environmental impact report, Hart warned, the project could be delayed as much as five years. “And that extra time is very big money,” he said.
Hart estimated a five-year delay would cost Caltrans $50 million in carrying costs alone. And as interest rates and construction costs go up, the problem only gets worse, he said. He agreed that the improvements demanded by the commissioners were, in fact, necessary, but Hart insisted that they could and should be achieved as separate projects and without holding up the entire venture.
For his efforts, Hart got nowhere. City planners recalled how the railroad bridge expansion had been promised before by Caltrans when seeking approval for the Highway 101 improvements just completed, but never delivered. Hence Lodge’s stated lack of trust. The additional improvements sought by City Hall will cost millions, and the commissioners remain convinced that unless they are included in the project description itself, the money just won’t be there. “The chances are between nil and nonexistent there will be the funding,” said Commissioner Addison Thompson. “At least that’s the way we read the tea leaves.”