With the sweet swooshes of cars speeding down the road in the background, about 250 people gathered beneath Highway 101 in Santa Barbara on Monday for the official dedication of a massive highway-improvement project that has been under construction for four years.
The ceremony marked a milestone in Santa Barbara’s decades-long effort to reduce congestion on Highway 101, a major statewide thoroughfare that bisects Santa Barbara and the South Coast.
Drivers already have been enjoying the improved traffic flow, as a third lane in each direction south of Milpas Street opened up last week.
The project — which stretches from Milpas to Hot Springs Road — was a huge undertaking that included the reconstruction of two major interchanges, six new or improved bridges, freeway widening and the Montecito roundabout. A new interchange also was built to connect Cacique Street under the freeway, allowing Eastside residents a way to walk to the beach more directly.
The $57 million project is the largest undertaken by Caltrans in Santa Barbara County to date, one that took nearly 16 years to plan, according to Tim Gubbins, Caltrans deputy director of project management, whose region includes Santa Barbara.
“I think we can be very proud of where we are today,” he said.
The crowd gathered at the northern end of Highway 101’s traffic bottleneck, according to Jim Kemp, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments.
“I think we all know what kind of traffic conditions exist to the south of where this project is,” he said.
This segment is the first phase of widening Highway 101 from Milpas Street to Mussel Shoals in Ventura County. Work has already begun on the second phase — improvements at the northern end of Ventura County up to Carpinteria Creek.
Phase three involves a reconstruction of the Casitas Pass and Linden Avenue interchanges in Carpinteria, which is necessary to accommodate the future widening of the highway, Kemp said. That phase of the project is fully funded, and construction is expected to start in 2015.
Phase four will close out the bottleneck between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria, and is expected to start construction in 2016. Part of that project includes the addition of carpool or high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the South Coast, and that draft environmental review is available for public viewing now; click here to read Noozhawk’s story.
“We are making tremendous progress,” he said.
Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal recalled that he was working as an aide in former Supervisor Naomi Schwartz’s office in the 1990s when the discussions were going on about the project.
“It almost feels like these projects never come to fruition,” he said. “That’s the nature of transportation funding and transportation projects.”
The project has been a partnership of multiple organizations, including the city and county of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments and Caltrans.
The project received $13 million in funding from Measure D, a sales-tax that funds transportation projects, which Carbajal called “a reminder of why we tax ourselves.”
Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider thanked businesses and residents in the area for their patience during the construction.
“We know it wasn’t easy, we know it probably had some impact on your daily lives and work here, but we know also that now you’re going to see the benefits of it,” she said. “It’s such a better area because of the work that we’ve done. This is truly a milestone for our whole region.”
Alan Bleecker, president of the Milpas Community Association, said the improvements will have a positive impact on traffic flow, and the Cacique Street underpass will also relieve pressure on the Milpas roundabout.