After months of meetings and analysis, Caltrans is right back where it started with Highway 101 in Montecito.
Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty wants to move forward with the original proposed South Coast Highway 101 HOV Project, he said in a recommendation letter issued Friday. Noozhawk acquired a copy of the letter Sunday.
The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments and Caltrans are partners in the project, which will use the bulk of the county's Measure A funding to expand the three-mile stretch of freeway through Montecito.
Members of the Montecito Association and another community group, Common Sense 101 Coalition, have pushed for alternatives that keep the left-side entrance and exit ramps at Cabrillo Boulevard and Sheffield Drive.
Both officials have been meeting with Montecito groups for months, partly at SBCAG’s direction, and want to move forward with the original plan for a third, carpool lane in either direction of Highway 101.
Caltrans and SBCAG are at a “critical juncture” in which they must agree on the project’s next steps to get approval, and ultimately relieve congestion in the crowded South Coast area, Dougherty wrote.
The state does not believe it’s necessary to recirculate the draft environmental impact report to include the two Montecito groups' ideas, since they are already analyzed in the document. The alternatives with left-side ramps are not considered viable, and are labeled that way in the EIR.
“Left-side ramps are not consistent with modern engineering standards, do not meet driver expectation, and cannot be retained due to safety and operational reasons,” Dougherty wrote.
He went into more detail in a letter to coalition head Jack Overall and Montecito Association president Dave Kent. He said left-side ramps are being systematically removed from highways around the country because they don’t meet design standards, they confuse drivers, and the configuration with a six-lane freeway wouldn’t be possible.
Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol evaluated the accident data that the coalition presented, but they don’t agree with the Montecito Association’s conclusions. The association’s analysis threw out some accident data near the intersections, asserting that things like “unsafe lane change” could have happened anywhere.
Dougherty's letter also states that there would be no cost savings if the left-side ramps were built after the third lanes were added. Those ramps would be in the way of Union Pacific Railroad tracks, frontage roads and private property, according to his letter.
“If SBCAG wants to move forward with the project, it should be understood that the left-side ramps are not a viable option,” Dougherty wrote to SBCAG.
Caltrans also recommends that SBCAG keep the carpool-designation for the entire length of the project, or it would affect the environmental results (especially the greenhouse gas emissions) as well as the project's purpose, to ease congestion.
Local projects proposed by Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider should be considered separately, Dougherty wrote. That includes replacing the Union Pacific Railroad bridge over Cabrillo Boulevard, improving the intersection at Coast Village and Olive Mill roads, and improving the San Ysidro Road interchange.
These projects could be coordinated with the Highway 101 HOV project, but shouldn’t be added to the current project scope, Caltrans said.
If SBCAG added the projects, it would take another four to five years and another $7 million to $9 million to redo and recirculate the environmental impact report documents, Dougherty wrote. Plus, construction costs for the overall project would have increased significantly by then.
Caltrans intends to finalize the current environmental document to get project approval.
SBCAG will discuss the letter and the project’s future at its Jan. 16 meeting, board chairman Roger Aceves said Sunday.
The threat of recirculating and spending more time and county money is a big concern to Aceves, a Goleta councilman and candidate for the county Board of Supervisors' Second Distrcit seat.
“If we recirculate, you’re looking at another year lost,” he said. “That’s the real fear.”
The board could make a decision in January or split its action over two months. In that case, the board would probably have a discussion and ask for additional information at the January meeting and then come back for a vote in February, Aceves said.
There will be some changes on the SBCAG board in February, with Aceves relinquishing his seat to Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino taking the reins as board chairman.
Bennett should be the only new SBCAG board member and is up to speed on the subject, Aceves said.