Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 5:55 am | Fair 66º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Santa Barbara Readies for Wide Road Ahead — Eventually

Highway 101 widening project starts now with four-year Milpas-Hot Springs construction project.

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For Santa Barbara Airbus owner Eric Onnen, the Highway 101 widening project will mean added pressure for his vehicles’ tight schedules but his staff is prepared to make necessary adjustments. (Lou Fontana photo / Noozhawk)

After years of anticipation, a modest groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday afternoon will mark the beginning of a $53 million project to widen a portion of Highway 101 between Santa Barbara and Montecito. The four-year undertaking will mean short-term pain for commuters and commerce but will result in the long-term gain of smoother traffic flow, at least on the 2.2-mile stretch of roadway between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, the former chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee; Caltrans; the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments; and a handful of local elected officials will help kick off the Highway 101 Operational Improvements. Then the real work begins.

Kirsten Ayars, the project’s community outreach liaison, said the Milpas-Hot Springs section is the first of four ambitious phases that will result in six lanes of freeway into Ventura County. The second phase will widen the highway between Casitas Pass Road in Carpinteria and Mussel Shoals, beginning in 2011; the third phase will improve the Casitas Pass and Linden Avenue overpasses; and the fourth phase will complete the widening of the freeway between Carpinteria and Montecito. All told, the project is expected to create about 954 jobs.

Additionally, Ayars said, the initial Milpas-Hot Springs project will have four stages, with each stage taking a year to complete. Improvements will include a third southbound lane between Milpas and Hot Springs, a third northbound lane between Salinas Street and Milpas, a new bridge over Milpas, and a roundabout at the confluence of Cabrillo Boulevard, Hot Springs and Coast Village roads and Old Coast Highway.

During the construction period, Ayars said, two lanes will remain open in both directions on Highway 101, and the majority of construction will take place behind concrete barriers during the day. In addition, some ramps will be closed temporarily, including the northbound Milpas exit ramp, which is expected to be closed for seven months; the southbound Milpas exit ramp, expected to be closed for five months; the southbound Hot Springs exit ramp, expected to be closed for four months; and the northbound Cabrillo exit ramp, expected to be closed for two months.

The bulk of the project’s $53 million in funding comes from the state gas tax, but Ayars said approximately $13 million will come from Measure D, a half-cent county sales tax used to pay for transportation projects. She said the other phases of the project will be partially funded by Measure A, pending its approval in the November election. Earlier this year, SBCAG unanimously approved the Measure A Transportation Investment Plan, which earmarks $140 million for the widening project.

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Officials say commuters should expect up to 15 extra minutes per trip during the four-year widening project of Highway 101 between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road. (Santa Barbara County Association of Governments photo)

Because of the construction’s disruption, Ayars said motorists should anticipate an extra 10-15 minutes on the freeway. However, Kent Epperson, director of SBCAG’s Traffic Solutions, said his organization has developed CurbYourCommute, a set of programs meant to improve conditions for the approximately 17,000 to 20,000 commuters affected by the construction.

“It’s going to be an impact now,” he said. “It will really pay for commuters to plan ahead and think about other options.”

CurbYourCommute is funded by Measure D funds, Epperson said, and includes services and programs such as the Commute Challenge, Shift Your Trip and FlexWork Santa Barbara. The Commute Challenge will take place in August and September, he said, and will involve teams of five commuters. Each team logs its trips online, and the more often members carpool to work, the more points they earn, which qualifies them and their company for prizes, he said.

Shift Your Trip is a two-week community-wide experiment in August in which “collectively, employers and commuters will shift their work hours,” Epperson said. According to Epperson, the daily peak slow traffic hours are caused by 2,000 additional commuters on the road.

“If we could shift those 2,000 trips to an hour earlier or later, in theory we could bring that corridor (Highway 101) to free flow of traffic,” he said.

FlexWork Santa Barbara offers “consulting services to employers who want to offer daily incentives to employees for not driving alone,” Epperson said. The program includes encouraging alternative work schedules, such as a four-day work week with longer hours per day, or encouraging telecommuting.

In addition, Epperson said individual drivers can register at Traffic Solutions online and use the Premium Vanpool Service, which employs spacious vans with reclining seats, and are equipped with free WiFi, sponsored by Citrix Online‘s GoToMyPC. In August and September, Epperson said, the vanpool service will be offered free of charge.

“Someone could start their workday theoretically when they get into the van, and be working on their desktop computer on the way to work and on the way home,” he said.

After the two free months of service, Epperson said commuters can sign a lease for use of the van and continue to receive free Internet service.

Traffic Solutions also offers Vista Coastal Express, a transport service with free Internet that operates from Oxnard, Ventura, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Goleta, and is offered all day every day of the week, Epperson said. Sponsored by GoToMyPC, SBCAG and the Ventura County Transportation Commission, the service requires only a $2 cash fare, and Epperson said commuters give themselves an indirect pay raise by saving $5,000 to 6,000 a year.

Registered users can also use the Traffic Solutions online commuter matching system, which connects potential carpoolers via e-mail, Epperson said. And, users also have access to the emergency ride program, which provides free rides home to carpoolers in case of emergencies, he said.

So, what does it mean for businesses that depend on Highway 101 for their livelihoods?

Jim Spencer, vice president and general manager of the food service distributor Jordano’s Foodservice, said his company is “not anticipating any major disruptions.” Jordano’s runs about 60 trucks each night and delivers to nine counties in Central and Southern California, including Santa Barbara, with customers as far north as San Luis Obispo and as far south as San Diego.

Although some nighttime closures will take place occasionally, Spencer said one lane should be sufficient for his trucks because they usually drive between midnight and 1 a.m., when traffic is very light.

“We’ll play it by ear and see what happens,” he said. ‘We’ll change dispatch times accordingly. It’s a big inconvenience but well worth it when it’s done.”

Tony Rodriguez, store manager for In-N-Out in Goleta, said trucks come every other day to deliver food to the burger restaurant. But, he said he doesn’t think his business will be affected by the construction. In fact, he said he’s glad the project includes widening the freeway.

“I see so many accidents,” he said. “I think it’s because it’s two lanes.”

Eric Onnen, owner of Santa Barbara Airbus, said he expects the Highway 101 project to pose some obstacles for his business, which transports about 3,000 to 4,000 people a week.

“We did survive the building of the freeway,” he said. “We’ve gone through a lot of construction projects over the years. This one, the challenge is there’s not a lot of alternative routing.”

Onnen said most of the time his buses will be able to keep their schedules relatively easily, but because of the nature of his business, it’s critical “to still retain schedule.”

“It will be a lot of challenges for us,” he said. “Everything we do is getting people to certain locations at specific times.”

In particular, Onnen said, Santa Barbara Airbus’ LAX shuttle must have as few disruptions en route as possible.

“Usually our folks are doing something else, like catching a plane or going to a cruise ship or going to a ball game,” he said. “So there’s lots of pressure.”

Because many of his vehicles have a set schedule, which is published on the Santa Barbara Airbus Web site, Onnen said he cannot often change bus departure times to accommodate possible traffic delays.

“What we have to look for is alternative routing to try to maintain schedule,” he said. “If we know (of) issues we can’t overcome, then we have to allow customers additional time.”

In some cases, he said the charter buses can add more time into their schedule because they “go all over.”

Since construction sites may have no delays one day and significant delays the next, Onnen said his staff will check for traffic conditions online, watch Web cams, communicate between buses, and try to reroute them if possible to keep to the schedule.

“We will track what is occurring on a week-to-week basis so we know the potential for backups and delays,” Onnen said. “And we’ll be having people aware so, hopefully, they can bypass it. We can use surface streets.”

The construction plans are sensitive to traffic demands, however, so he said he hopes the project will create as little traffic as possible.

Throughout the Highway 101 construction project, drivers can call 888.727.6237 with questions about the project or to learn the latest information about the project and traffic conditions, Ayars said. Commuters can also sign up to be sent periodic e-mail updates, she said. Click here for more information, including project and detour maps, traffic cameras, and community meeting reports.

Sabrina Ricci is a Noozhawk intern.

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