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All Growl but No Bark

Mayor Plays High-Stakes Game of Chicken with Caltrans over Freeway Widening


CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE: Someone really smart once told me that the massive freeway-widening project now envisioned by Caltrans wouldn’t be necessary if area employers instead figured out how to stagger the times employees showed up for work. And you wouldn’t have to tinker with the schedules of all that many people, he added, to avoid rush-hour gridlock. Given that he served on the board of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) ​— ​Caltrans’s alter ego in the world of local government ​— ​the comment carried weight. I was interrupted by that thought last Wednesday as I was trying to keep score in a game of full-body contact ping-pong pitting Scott Eades of Caltrans against Santa Barbara’s mayor, Helene Schneider. At issue were key elements that Schneider and City Hall are insisting must be added to the $500 million freeway-widening plans now on the drawing boards. Or else. Eades, naturally, sees it otherwise, and as state bureaucrats go, you don’t get more impressive. In person, Eades radiates a calm just-the-facts-ma’am impartiality. And armed with a laptop, the man is devastatingly persuasive. But even on a bad day, Schneider knows the freeway project down to the last asterisk of the last appendix of the plan’s draft environmental impact report. And last Wednesday was anything but a bad day for the mayor, who appeared to have inhaled three cans of whup-ass just prior to the confab, which was held before the Chamber of Commerce’s Government Relations Committee. In this match-up, I’m still not sure who was the irresistible force and who was the immovable object; I just know Schneider kicked butt.

Angry Poodle

All parties involved insist the freeway widening is absolutely essential. Without it, Caltrans says the morning peak-hour gridlock will spread to six long hours. With it, Caltrans says 917 driver hours a day will be saved. But the project will take 15 years to build and cost about $550 million. Where that money will come from is far from clear. But if and when the project is built, you can be sure there will be precious little left to spend on anything else. Very understandably, Caltrans ​— ​and SBCAG ​— ​desperately want to avoid anything that will drive up costs. Time is money; delays are deadly. Equally understandably, Schneider and City Hall want the project done right and are threatening to hold up the project to ensure that it is. It turns out the level of service at the Cabrillo interchange will get worse, not better, under Caltrans’s current plans. To fix this problem, the Union Pacific Bridge by the bird refuge needs to be rebuilt to accommodate a few more lanes of traffic. Otherwise traffic will back up along Cabrillo Boulevard about 800 feet west of Los Patos. Caltrans and SBCAG don’t deny any of this. But to include this bridge work in the project now, they insist, will hold things up. And besides, there’s not enough money to pay for the freeway widening as is. City Hall, they say, should pursue the matter separately. Around City Hall, that argument has no wings at all. Back in 1997, promises were made that the Union Pacific Bridge would be widened as part of the previous phase of freeway improvements. It never happened.

As a result, Schneider is playing a high-stakes game of chicken with Caltrans. Include the bridge, or City Hall will deny the permits Caltrans needed to build the project. All of this, it should be noted, is vastly complicated by political intrigue. Schneider’s political pit bull and campaign manager ​— ​Jeremy Lindaman ​— ​just happens to represent Common Sense 101, a group of very wealthy and politically connected Montecitans who are absolutely and irrevocably dedicated to retaining the left-hand exit ramps at the Cabrillo-Hot Springs interchange for a host of reasons. (Because of them, Malcolm Dougherty, the Pope of Caltrans, issued the decree in a visit to Santa Barbara this May that he would never ​— ​under any condition ​— ​allow the left-lane ramps to be retained, citing inherent safety issues.) When Schneider eventually runs for county supervisor or Congress, the support of such well-heeled Montecitans will prove vital. Schneider already went to bat for these folks in a huge way, making their case at a meeting with the governor’s office this summer. That meeting allegedly got the left-lane ramps put “back on the table.” (Since that meeting, Caltrans has disclosed that only 13 accidents over the past 10 years can be attributed to the left-hand ramps for southbound drivers at the Cabrillo interchange; of those, six occurred when freeway construction was underway. Despite the infrequency of such accidents, Caltrans insists left-hand ramps need to be phased out.) Conversely, it’s worth noting that City Council candidate Gregg Hart happens to work for SBCAG by day and in that capacity is moving heaven and earth to get the freeway widening underway without any further delays. If he’s elected, it’s impossible to imagine Hart going toe-to-toe with Caltrans or his employers at SBCAG, as Schneider is now doing. As a legal matter, Santa Barbara City Attorney Steve Wiley has said Hart has no conflict of interest. The smell test, however, remains another matter, and politically, the issue has clearly put Hart and Schneider ​— ​both moderate liberal Democrats ​— ​at loggerheads.

Machiavellian scheming aside, it’s worth noting that all seven members of the city’s planning commission agree with Schneider and have just dropped a densely worded two-page letter bomb on Caltrans, demanding that the railroad bridge be included in the freeway-widening project and that the draft environmental analysis be recirculated to reflect that change. Likewise backing Schneider’s play ​— ​to the hilt ​— ​is city transportation planning czar Rob Dayton, community development boss Paul Casey, and City Administrator Jim Armstrong. In other words, they’re all in.

It’s actually vastly more complicated. But in an oversimplified nutshell, I’d say if Caltrans doesn’t figure out a way to blink pretty soon, then maybe area employers will need to take a much closer look at recalibrating the work schedules of their employees. A really smart guy once told me that might do the trick.

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