The director of Caltrans insists his staff would not approve of keeping the Montecito-area left-side on-ramps and off-ramps for Highway 101, but local leaders on Thursday asked the state agency to include a Montecito coalition’s alternative design plan in the widening project’s environmental documents.
Caltrans and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments are partners for the Highway 101 widening project, which will add a carpool lane in either direction between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria in an effort to reduce congestion over the long term.
Some work has already been done, and the next phase would add the lane and reconfigure certain ramps in the Montecito area.
Designating the extra lane as a high-occupancy vehicle lane could make it easier to get state and federal funding and will incentivize carpools, Caltrans District 5 director Tim Gubbins said.
The whole project is estimated to cost between $345 million and $455 million. SBCAG has contributed about $140 million out of local sales tax Measure A funds, and $22 million out of the area’s share of state gas tax funds so far, SBCAG executive director Jim Kemp said.
A draft environmental impact report has been circulated and received comment, and Caltrans made a presentation to SBCAG on Thursday on the Common Sense 101 Coalition’s alternative proposal.
The Montecito Association and this coalition, formed solely to deal with this issue, have expressed concerns with the current project plans.
They want to keep the southbound left-side onramp at Sheffield Drive and the left-side ramps at Cabrillo Boulevard, and push the high-occupancy vehicle lane designation further south.
The SBCAG board voted to talk more in the future about where the HOV lane designation should start and stop. Coalition members want to push the restrictions south of Sheffield.
This is the fourth and final stage of the widening project, and it’s been “the highest regional priority, because it’s by far our worst traffic problem,” Kemp said.
Caltrans plans to modify the Cabrillo and Sheffield interchanges in addition to adding the third lane, and estimates the entire construction project would take 24 to 29 months, with at least two lanes of traffic open in either direction.
The “F Modified” option for Cabrillo Boulevard would add a northbound right-side offramp at Cabrillo, improve the northbound onramp, and build a new southbound onramp and offramp to the right.
The Los Patos Way exit would be closed, since many trucks ignore signs and hit the 100-year-old Union Pacific Railroad bridge that only has 12 feet of clearance, project manager Scott Eades said.
“Just in this calendar year, we’ve had three bridge hits by trucks,” he said. “It’s a very strong structure — it’s always won and the trucks aren’t left in very good shape.”
For Sheffield, Caltrans proposes eliminating the left-side onramp for southbound traffic due to safety issues. It’s been the department’s policy to systematically eliminate left-side ramps, and not doing so could bring some major liability, Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty said.
“It’s not viable, appropriate or responsible to retain the left-side ramps at this location,” he said.
Gubbins and Eades said they want to minimize construction time and the disruptive impact to local roads, residents and businesses. They spent 1,600 staff hours evaluating the proposal at SBCAG’s direction, which was mostly paid for by SBCAG at a cost of $175,000.
The coalition wants to add the extra lane on the outside of existing lanes, which would cut into private property and the Union Pacific Railroad’s right-of-way, Caltrans staff said.
Most of all, however, Montecito residents are fighting to keep the left-side ramps — for community character and cost savings — and argue that they meet “driver expectations” since they are used mostly by local residents and other drivers use GPS or other mapping equipment.
Jack Overall, a member of the Montecito Planning Commission, and Tijana Hamilton, the engineer hired to work on the alternative proposal, gave a presentation at the Thursday meeting.
The left-side ramps could be lengthened so drivers don’t have to speed up as quickly, Hamilton said.
Their proposal, she added, would save about $43 million and a lot of time if those two ramps weren’t moved.
Overall said the alternative would also be consistent with the character of the community, have fewer visual impacts, require fewer tree removals, lessen the impact on local businesses and residents, and still accomplish the goal of congestion relief.
He pushed the SBCAG board to include the alternative in the EIR so it could be considered later.
However, Caltrans staff said everything evaluated to date is already in that report, and this alternative would be included as a nonviable option.
Left-side ramps are increasingly rare and require slower drivers to move across all lanes when exiting or entering the highway, said Eades, adding that they’re not supported by state or federal standards.
They have higher collision rates statewide and the Cabrillo Boulevard exit has a higher-than-average rate, he said.
“I have an obligation to the motoring public to make sure it’s safe,” he said. “The liability that goes along with that is endless, and it’s mine.”
Ultimately, Caltrans is the owner/operator of the highway system, and the decision lies with the agency, he noted.
“This is probably the last time we’re going to touch 101 in this section for a long time, so we should think about what we want to leave behind,” he said.
Exceptions for left-side ramps can be made, but he wouldn’t make them, and no one below him would either, he said.
The SBCAG board of directors voted 7-6 to continue the discussion of where the HOV designation starts and stops, include the entire Common Sense 101 alternative in the EIR (though Caltrans will note that it’s not a viable alternative), and recirculate the EIR if any changes make that necessary.
The alternatives included in the Common Sense 101 plan were already considered in a piecemeal way, so the inclusion won’t actually change anything, Gubbins said.
Many Montecito residents and business owners spoke in favor of the Common Sense 101 alternative, adding a southbound ramp at Cabrillo Boulevard and eliminating the Los Patos Way exit.
Sally Jordan, a member of the Neighborhood Defense League, said the state needs to be more sensitive.
“The Caltrans plan will be disastrous to not just Montecito and Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara County, but the entire Central Coast commerce artery,” she said.
Judith Ishkanian, board president of the Montecito Sanitary District, said the district’s new laboratory and maintenance building are not on the aerial photographs being used for the planning process. They need to be part of the planning process, she said.
“In the draft EIR, it says all unincorporated areas are on septic systems — no they’re not!” she exclaimed. “It’s hard on your sanitary district ego to be told you don’t exist.”
Residents also raised concerns about the short offramp for San Ysidro Road, which isn’t addressed for this project, and the busy intersection at the Olive Mill Road exits and Coast Village Road.
County Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said Caltrans doesn’t seem willing to budge on the left-side ramps, so the county should move forward with the planned project.
“We are here and let’s just get this done,” she said. “Let’s get it moving and let’s get this Highway 101 complete.”
Carpinteria Councilman Al Clark said it was worth investigating if the Common Sense 101 plan could save tens of millions of dollars and time.
Goleta Mayor Roger Aceves, SBCAG’s board chairman, worried about the county’s liability if it builds the left-side ramps after Caltrans so adamantly opposed them.
“I wouldn’t want to delay this any longer if we’re going to be spending time dealing with that one issue,” he said. “I can support looking at HOV and where to start and stop, but I can’t support the motion to recirculate and to consider left-hand turn lanes.”
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal was joined in his support of the Common Sense 101 alternative being added by Clark, Lompoc Mayor John Linn, Solvang Mayor Jim Richardson, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino and Buellton Councilwoman Holly Sierra.