Friday, May 27 , 2016, 1:36 pm | Fair 65º

Montecito Association Urges Caltrans to Use Caution on Highway 101 Widening Project

The group pushes for an alternative to save time, money and frustration, but SBCAG insists safety is the driving force behind the plan's design

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

Montecito has long been a bottleneck for traffic on Highway 101, and plans to add a third lane in the area are raising the ire of some residents of the community, who argue that the project could be built for less money and in less time.

Caltrans wants to add the carpool lanes — also known as High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes — on an 11-mile stretch between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria to reduce congestion in the area. Construction has already begun on an HOV lane on Highway 101 in Carpinteria, and that construction is expected to be finished in 2014.

Without the added capacity, the agency says congested conditions could exist for 10 hours a day by 2040, compared with two to four hours daily now.

Montecito residents gathered at a workshop last spring, and the main concern expressed then was the noise impact of the project, but since then, concerns seem to have shifted.

Now, they’re focusing on the two left-hand ramps that would be replaced by the improvements — the Cabrillo and Sheffield off-ramps — and would move them to the right side of the freeway.

More information on the plan’s specifics can be found by clicking here.

Ron Pulice, who is spearheading the effort for the Montecito Association, serves on the organization’s transportation sub-committee and also served as chairman of Pulice Construction Inc. for 20 years, which specializes in transportation projects.

Pulice told Noozhawk that Caltrans had been “tremendously scornful” of the group’s alternative, and that the agency’s plans don’t fit in with the community.

“It’s really overkill,” Pulice said. “It’s trying to overlay a [Highway] 405 in this little area.”

Pulice argues that Caltrans could shave $50 million off the plan by preserving the two existing ramps, and could complete the project in 20 months. By preserving the ramps, he said, the surrounding community would be less impacted by the construction.

If not, “it would be bumper to bumper for 4½ years,” Pulice said. “This would be something that would terrorize our village.”

But Gregg Hart of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments said the ramps must be changed for a good reason — the Federal Highway Administration has documented that left-hand ramps have twice as many accidents.

“Fundamentally, drivers don’t expect to get off,” he said. “People don’t expect quick movements from right to left.”

Hart said Caltrans has recorded that accidents at the Cabrillo off-ramp are 1½ times the statewide accident rate.

He concedes that there are other right-hand ramps that have higher accident rates, but “every ramp has a story and every ramp has its own issues. ... The idea is that you fix the problem.”

Caltrans discussed alternatives with the Montecito Association very early on, since the first public meeting in 2008, Hart said, but added that they could not agree to keep the ramps.

“It’s simply a safety consideration,” he said. “Caltrans will be liable.”

While the Montecito Association says build less, Hart said Caltrans may have a better way to construct the same project so as to minimize impacts on the community.

“Maybe we work on the weekends, or later into the night or provide other detours around the construction. ... There are a lot of different ways to solve the same problem,” he said. “The Montecito Association is only seeing one solution and not being open to a dialogue. ... That’s been difficult and frustrating.”

A full draft of the EIR for the project is expected to be released in October, and Hart said SBCAG is responding to all of the public comment gathered and doing additional analysis.

Sometime this spring, Hart said, Caltrans will return to the SBCAG board to share its analysis of the Montecito Association’s alternatives.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.d

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