Four days before Christmas, statewide Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty quietly drew a very bright line in the sand regarding his agency’s plans to widen Highway 101 from Montecito to the Ventura border, notifying critics with Common Sense 101, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), and anyone wondering about the fate of the biggest public works project — worth an estimated $450 million — to hit the South Coast in decades. Caltrans, the director stated, would give no further consideration to the much-disputed left-hand exit and entrance ramps at Cabrillo Boulevard and Sheffield Drive, stating their retention would pose “long-term safety and operational conditions and are not viable or approvable as part of this project.”
Common Sense 101 — a group of Montecito activists — had presented a traffic engineering study showing that there were considerably fewer collisions at these two interchanges — not more — and by retaining the left-hand ramps, Caltrans could shave $60 million and two years off the cost and time of construction. In his letters to SBCAG and Common Sense 101, Dougherty took issue with the methodology of the group’s collision analysis. Regardless of the details, he insisted that left-hand ramps are “functionally obsolete” and not as safe as right-hand ramps because they confound driver expectations. He also insisted the alternative plans proposed by Common Sense 101 are no cheaper or faster to build. Common Sense activist Ron Pulice noted that Caltrans has already made 175 design exceptions to the freeway-widening plan and has failed to demonstrate why making another posed an insurmountable problem.
Likewise, Dougherty rejected demands by the City of Santa Barbara that the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) be recirculated for another six months and allow the project to be expanded to include a widening of the railroad bridge by the Bird Refuge on Cabrillo Boulevard. Without this, Mayor Helene Schneider has argued, traffic will become unacceptably backed up along Cabrillo. Past assurances by SBCAG and Caltrans that they’d address the issue have failed to bear fruit, she said. “They’ve been saying trust us for 10 years,” she said, “and nothing’s happened.” The city’s Planning Commission voted unanimously that the project EIR failed to address the increased congestion the freeway widening will cause at some city intersections and that the document needed reworking. Dougherty made it clear that would not be happening, insisting such an effort could delay the project by as many as five years and increase the cost by $9 million.
Dougherty’s letter sets the stage for what promises to be a hot and heavy showdown when the SBCAG Board of Directors meets on January 16. In recent months, Schneider has indicated City Hall might deny Caltrans the necessary coastal development permits if these changes weren’t made. Schneider is hoping to persuade a majority of her fellow SBCAG members to stand up to Caltrans. She pointed out that local taxpayers approved spending $140 million on the freeway widening. On top of that, she said, the SBCAG board has committed $100 million in state gas-tax revenues that would otherwise go to local road repair. By contrast, Schneider said Caltrans hasn’t secured or committed to any of the additional funding the project will need. She’s hoping the redirection of gas-tax revenues — at a time when road repairs are urgently needed — and Caltrans’s lack of “good faith” in responding to the concerns of Common Sense 101 will give fellow SBCAG members serious pause.
Still, 79 percent of county voters approved the expansion of an existing sales tax six years ago with the idea that freeway widening was the highest priority. How much traction Schneider gets has yet to be seen. County Supervisor — and SBCAG boardmember — Salud Carbajal has pushed Caltrans to meet with Common Sense 101 to hash out the relevant accident data and has scolded Caltrans for not doing so. But, he said, Dougherty’s letter clearly reflects the thoughts and wishes of Governor Jerry Brown. “If it’s a choice of ‘build’ or ‘no build,’ I’m definitely for build,” Carbajal declared. “But there may be other ways to secure the improvements the community clearly wants.
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