The Santa Barbara City Council voted Tuesday night to postpone the issue of taking over control of Highway 225 from Caltrans until later this month, asking city staff to come back with more information about accident rates, pedestrian safety improvement ideas and an analysis of legal liability.
The 4.6-mile highway stretches from the Castillo and Montecito streets intersection around Santa Barbara City College, along Cliff Drive and north on Las Positas Road until it hits Highway 101. To improve pedestrian and vehicle safety, and at the behest of Mesa neighborhood residents, the council is considering taking ownership of the highway from Caltrans.
Caltrans has agreed to keep ownership of the Las Positas Bridge railroad overcrossing and to pay the city for drainage improvements if the transfer goes through, but at Tuesday night’s council meeting, a representative said there is no way the state will take on any liability for the road after it changes hands.
Liability is a sticking point for City Attorney Steve Wiley, who noted that there have been six fatalities in the past five years alone on that stretch of road. The road has double the average accident rate for a state highway.
“It would only take one serious accident to expose the city to tremendous liability,” Wiley said, adding that he wants Caltrans to indemnify the city for five to 10 years, as long as no major design changes occur, but Caltrans refuses to do so.
“Unfortunately, this issue of liability is not negotiable,” Caltrans Deputy District Director Aileen Loe said.
While Caltrans will defend legal claims from incidents during Caltrans’ ownership, even if filed late, she said the city is responsible for defending any legal issues that come up after it takes over.
The city would also take on the costs of maintaining the streets, which was estimated at $367,000 per year, according to Public Works Director Christine Andersen. Caltrans did a $600,000 preventive maintenance project with a five-year lifespan last year, so there would need to be another costly micro-surfacing project in five years, Loe noted.
“If this conversation is about total cost to the taxpayer, we’re your partner you want to keep at the table to maintain the route, because we can do it cost effectively,” she said.
Mesa residents, who have advocated for decades for this transition to go through, asked the City Council to move forward with the project and said the resurfacing and restriping project by Caltrans last year had already made a world of difference. They argued that no pedestrian safety improvements will happen while the state owns the roadway.
Resident Timothy Harding said during the public comment period that there’s no reason to wait for a better economy that may never come, and postponing a decision would jeopardize the lives of more people.
While the majority of the City Council members agreed that owning Highway 225 was the long-term goal, they argued over the process — and timing — of the changeover.
“We’re fighting tooth and nail right now to find money for restoration of some services, paying our employees, looking at the library — I know it’s not the same pots of money, but everything is tight,” Councilwoman Cathy Murillo said. “I’m wondering what can be done to improve safety without relinquishment.”
Councilman Grant House said the liability of the road speaks to the danger, and the only way to make it safer is for the city to take control of it.
He and Mayor Helene Schneider tried to move the project forward Tuesday night, but the other council members weren’t on board.
Councilman Dale Francisco said the council needs to know more about the impacts of restriping on accident rates, a more thorough analysis of the potential legal liability issues, and conceptual ideas from city staff on pedestrian safety improvements that could be done if the city owns the roads.
He said not everything would be, or could be, changed for the better just because of the changeover — there aren’t many crosswalks across Cliff Drive because it’s a wide, heavily trafficked street, not because the state owns the road.
Other council members agreed, urging caution and reiterating that there was no rush to take up the high maintenance costs that would divert resources from other city streets.
City staff members will come back with more information on these issues at a meeting later in May, when the council will again be faced with the choice to move forward, postpone a decision or table the idea.