Tuesday, December 1 , 2015, 6:38 am | Fair 42º

SBCAG Votes to Proceed with Highway 101 Widening Project

In approving the plan, board decides to bring in an independent firm for the design process

Speakers line up Thursday in Santa Barbara to give remote testimony to the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments board, which was meeting in Santa Maria to decide whether to proceed with the South Coast Highway 101 widening project.
Speakers line up Thursday in Santa Barbara to give remote testimony to the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments board, which was meeting in Santa Maria to decide whether to proceed with the South Coast Highway 101 widening project.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

By Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @magnoli | updated logo 5:14 p.m. |

The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments decided Thursday to move forward with the current plan for the South Coast Highway 101 project, which adds a carpool lane in each direction for the 10.9 miles between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.

Caltrans will now certify the environmental impact report before the design phase starts.

SBCAG’s 13-member board of directors voted Thursday to hire an independent firm for the design process, instead of using Caltrans.

Many of the board members said they have trust issues with Caltrans from this project's process and wanted fresh eyes on the design stage.

The board voted 11-2 to move forward with the project, with Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and Fourth District county Supervisor Peter Adam opposed.

Adam said it’s “disturbing” that Caltrans owns the highway system and Santa Barbara County taxpayers will be paying for more than half of it.

The Highway 101 widening project is the last piece of an effort to ease congestion in southern Santa Barbara County and northern Ventura County, from the Milpas Street area down to Mussel Shoals.

The portion from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria has been planned for years and is partially funded by the 2008 Measure A initiative that was passed by 79 percent of county voters, as well as local shares of state gas-tax funds.

SBCAG had the option of changing the project scope, but a lot of discussion hinged on the intent of Measure A voters. The widening project was the No. 1 priority.

California Highway Patrol Officer Jeff Sgobba said emergency responders want an additional lane as well. When traffic shuts down, locals use all of the surrounding streets to try and avoid gridlock, he added.

“Move forward, drive safely and let’s get on with it,” Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said.

The Measure A citizen advisory committee unanimously asked SBCAG to reaffirm its commitment to the project, certify the EIR and start design without undue delay – and the board agreed.

“If we change the scope we would be subverting the goals if the 101 widening plan, plain and simple,” Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino said.

There has been strong opposition to the Caltrans plan from members of the Montecito Association and the citizen group Common Sense 101, which frequently met with transportation heads in Sacramento last year.

They argued to keep left-hand ramps at Cabrillo Boulevard and Sheffield Drive, which Caltrans will convert to right-hand ramps in the project.

Caltrans repeatedly said it would not build left-hand ramps because they don’t follow safety or design standards.

“In the end, we feel very strongly that a left-side configuration after reconstruction would leave us less safe,” project manager Scott Eades said.

The city of Santa Barbara wanted three projects to be added to the Highway 101 project, but the SBCAG board voted to pursue them separately but concurrently.

The city is concerned the highway improvements will affect local roads for the worse, and it wants to replace the Union Pacific Railroad bridge at Cabrillo Boulevard, change the intersection of Olive Mill and Coast Village Road, and change the interchange at San Ysidro Road.

Schneider said she couldn't support the motion without including these projects, since she's worried the funding will never materialize.

City Administrator Jim Armstrong, who was allowed to give a presentation at Thursday’s meeting, said the city projects are critical to having the Highway 101 interchanges work well.

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal made the motion to concur with Caltrans’ letter to SBCAG, move forward with the existing EIR and consider the Santa Barbara projects separately. He, like Schneider, has been involved in some of the private meetings between the Montecito Association and Caltrans.

At this point, he believes delay would cost the county time, money and the possibility of losing the project altogether, he said.

“I’m concerned that in essence, not moving forward could mean at some point, at some level, no build,” he said.

Carbajal also said, “rightly or wrongly, there’s been this trust issue” with Caltrans, and suggested the county use an independent firm to help with the final development and design. The board agreed, voting 11-2 to support his motion.

“I wouldn’t begin to vote for this if it didn’t have the independent engineer because I don’t have the trust anymore,” Lompoc mayor John Linn said. Caltrans and SBCAG staff have “stonewalled’ the Common Sense 101 group and stopped truthful information being presented to the board, he said.

Many members seemed to have standing frustrations with Caltrans, and Fifth District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino suggested Caltrans needs “relationship therapy” with many local jurisdictions.

The issue was given one hour on the agenda – which is a farce, seeing how long all the previous meetings went – and took more than five hours between presentations, deliberation and public comment.

About 50 people spoke, some urging the board to reconsider the project. They said Caltrans didn’t consider cost or local concerns enough with the design, and the county should make changes to the project scope and recirculate it.

Others asked the board to move forward as it is and avoid spending any more time in the environmental review process.

Voters have been asking for this project for years, they reminded SBCAG.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli 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.

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