The tragic death of 14-year-old Christina Veloz-Payne last week stunned her Goleta community, not just because she was so young but because of how it happened: She was hit crossing Highway 101 while returning to her northwest Goleta home from Girsh Park on the south side of the freeway.
“My heart goes out to her family,” said Paula Perotte, a resident of El Encanto Heights, the neighborhood just north of where the teenager’s body was found. “We lost a child. It’s so sad.”
For Perotte and some of her neighbors, however, the tragedy is also a sickening reminder of the kind of danger youths in that area are willing to face just to get from one end of the city to another.
At about two miles, the distance between the Storke/Glen Annie roads exit and the Winchester Canyon Road exit is Highway 101’s longest stretch between two exits in Goleta and Santa Barbara. For anyone traveling between the suburbs around Dos Pueblos High School and the area around Camino Real Marketplace, that’s easily a trip of two or more miles. For many youths, that’s too far, especially when they can cover the distance by traversing the freeway.
“Well, you know, when you’re at that age, the best route is always a straight line,” said Perotte, who says she has seen it happen.
As president of the Santa Barbara 15th District PTA, she has advocated for safer routes to and from school. Last month, she helped persuade city leaders to change parking rules in front of Dos Pueblos High to prevent vehicles from hitting the students as they crossed the street.
The notion of youths crossing the freeway in that area is not a new one, even though some longtime residents are astounded that it even happens. According to Wilson Hubbell, once a Santa Barbara County planner specializing in alternative transportation and now vice president of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition, youths have been crossing the freeway for decades, even before places like Camino Real Marketplace became a magnet.
“They would either run across the freeway, sometimes with surfboards tucked under their arms, or cross below the freeway using the drainage pipe,” he said.
Those were the kinds of stories Hubbell said he heard during public meetings he helped facilitate in the mid-1990s, when the county was contemplating a bike/pedestrian overpass in western Goleta. About $1 million from the $5.4 million in impact fees paid by Wynmark Co., Camino Real Marketplace’s developer, would help fund the project.
“The location of the bridge was literally selected by the people of El Encanto Heights,” he said, because of their concern about children running across the freeway.
The challenge was to build a bridge that could span the freeway and the railroad tracks while providing access for people with disabilities and clearing the height needed for the train to pass underneath.
By the time studies were done, meetings were held and land was dedicated for the landings on both sides of the freeway, the cost had ballooned to about $6 million, money that still had to be raised.
In 2002, the city of Goleta incorporated, which took the project out of the county’s hands. It is still unclear, however, what happened to the $1 million in funds. Hubbell recalls the money would have gone to the city, while a line-item inquiry by the city reports no such transfer of funds near that amount after incorporation. Speculation points to the dedicated entrance/exit lane on southbound Highway 101 between the Storke/Glen Annie and Los Carneros Road exits as the project the money funded.
Several months ago, the city initiated a $300,000 study to determine the best placement for a dedicated overcrossing in the area. It’s a project that actually goes back to the city’s beginnings, during the writing of the General Plan.
Then-Mayor Jonny Wallis in 2006 negotiated with the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments to dedicate funds to Goleta’s two overcrossing projects when SBCAG put together Measure A+B, the half-cent plus quarter-cent sales tax that was meant to be a continuation of the transportation sales tax. The measure failed for lack of votes.
“We’re not sitting on our hands,” Mayor Michael Bennett said. “Before this tragedy, we were taking a pro-active approach to this problem.” Click here for a Bennett commentary on the issue.
The planned Goleta overcrossings — one in the west end and one closer to Old Town — are expected to cost as much as $20 million each to build, probably more given the rising cost of materials. They will be not just for cyclists and walkers but for cars, which also will take some stress off local intersections such as Storke Road and Hollister Avenue.
For community activists such as Safe Routes to School’s Eva Inbar, however, the county’s bike/pedestrian bridge is still the best choice.
“We had a bridge that was designed and ready to go and the right-of-way is still acquired,” she said. “It’s there, but it needed the money for it to be built.”
The bridge as planned, she said, is very close to the route Veloz-Payne is thought to have taken in her attempt to cross the freeway.
The city is sticking to its plan for the dedicated overcrossings.
“By the time you get done doing the engineering (for the bike bridge), the cost gets ridiculous, and you might as well build a regular overpass,” said Bennett, who added that ongoing studies will determine the best overcrossing project.
“We’re trying to find out what the possibilities are,” he said. The studies are not expected to be finished until early next year.
Whether a footbridge or a dedicated overcrossing, both sides say their project would require the passing of Measure A, this year’s attempt at extending the half-cent transportation sales tax Measure D, which expires in 2010. The measure would dedicate $7 million to Goleta’s overcrossings.
Meanwhile, Perotte is thinking of doing some work on her own to prevent further tragedies.
“I might talk to the CHP,” she said. “Maybe I can get some of those kids to show me where they go.”
Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at email@example.com.