Nearly a year after a judge ruled that part of its final environmental impact report was inadequately done, Caltrans on Thursday night presented its revised draft EIR for the Highway 101 widening project between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.
The document was released earlier this month, kicking off a 60-day public commenting period for the final phase of the long-awaited Highway 101 widening project.
The phase will add a high-occupancy vehicle lane in each direction of the freeway along the 10.9-mile stretch between the Andree Clark Bird Refuge in Santa Barbara and just south of Bailard Avenue in Carpinteria.
Under the plan, the interchanges at Sheffield Drive in Montecito and at Cabrillo Boulevard and Hot Springs Road in Santa Barbara will also be reconstructed, eliminating the area’s left-hand offramps.
The EIR revision came after a lawsuit challenged the document, arguing that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the impacts to local intersections and cumulative traffic impacts from the project.
The original EIR was approved in August 2014, and Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle ordered the revision this past January. Only the intersections section of the original EIR had to be redone.
The revised draft EIR is available on Caltrans’ website, and the final EIR is expected to be ready in the spring.
After that point, “we’ll jump wholeheartedly into the design and permitting phase,” said project manager David Emerson at the public meeting Thursday evening at Santa Barbara’s Chase Palm Park Center..
“We anticipate to be back in front of the public several times as we go through this permitting phase to iron out the details of the design and how the project will end up looking,” he said.
Construction is then projected to begin in 2019, Emerson said.
Out of 108 intersections studied, seven in Santa Barbara and Carpinteria are believed to be headed for the worst traffic impacts because of construction.
Caltrans established “appropriate evaluation methods to determine significant impacts in terms of context and intensity in whether or not we had impacts,” said Jason Wilkinson, the project’s environmental manager.
That “helped us develop an analysis in criteria to determine where appropriate mitigations would be applied.”
The impacts, Wilkinson said, are measured by the length, in seconds, of the added delays at intersections.
If cars queuing at one of the seven intersections are projected, for example, to suffer a 15-second delay because of construction, intersection improvements should result in at least 15 fewer seconds of delay.
Impact mitigations should be finished before the construction that would affect a respective intersection begins, Wilkinson said.
He explained that Caltrans could work on those improvements themselves for the intersections in its own jurisdiction, and can compensate local agencies for those that aren’t.
What improvements would mitigate construction impacts would have to be worked out between Caltrans and local agencies, he said.
When the project is complete, cars with two or more occupants, buses, motorcycles and certain types of clean-air vehicles will be able to enter and exit the planned HOV lanes at any point along the highway.
The lanes, however, will be open to all cars outside of the peak traffic times of weekdays and on weekends.
“This project is going to be the last freeway lanes that we’re going to build in this part of the corridor in any of our lifetimes,” said Scott Eades, Caltrans’ Highway 101 corridor manager. “We’re not designing this project to build another lane at some point in the future. Literally, we’re designing this project to be the ultimate capacity for this corridor.”
Marc Chytilo, the environmental law attorney who spearheaded the EIR lawsuit, maintained that the revised draft EIR still does not adequately analyze where there will be the most significant impacts, which the California Environmental Quality Act require be substantially mitigated if no project alternatives are offered.
All jurisdictions, he said, have standards delineating at what point a project generates enough traffic to make those impacts significant.
“If you apply the local thresholds, the project would have dozens of significant impacts,” he told Noozhawk, although he added that it would take a traffic engineer to properly determine that conclusion.
“Here, they’ve kind of repeated what they did before, where, instead of looking at individual intersections, they tried to amalgamate and use this amorphous yardstick of ‘context and intensity’ to determine whether an impact is significant.”
He said that the revised draft EIR appeared to determine significant impacts based, for instance, on more general standards like “balancing the fact that the project will make traffic worse on surface streets in the morning, but better in the afternoon.”
Caltrans, however, expressed confidence that the revised draft EIR's methods would not necessitate another revision.
"Caltrans remains confident that the supplemental data included in the revised Environmental Impact Report for the South Coast 101 HOV Project will satisfy the court, allowing us to proceed with this transportation improvement project benefiting the several thousand travelers who use this highway every day," Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said in a statement to Noozhawk.
Eades placed the total estimated cost of the project at $350 million. Intersection mitigations are expected to contribute anywhere between $1 million and $8 million to that, he added.
According to Caltrans, the project is funded by $140 million of Measure A funds and $22 million of gas tax money and bond funds. The remaining funding is anticipated to come from other state and federal transportation funds.
In September, work started on a four-year, $60 million phase in Carpinteria, which is reconstructing and widening Highway 101 overcrossings at Linden Avenue and Casitas Pass Road, reconstructing freeway bridges over Carpinteria Creek, extending Via Real for over a mile to meet up with Linden Avenue, and improving various bicycle and pedestrian crossings.
The first phases, which kicked off the overall widening project in 2008, widened the freeway between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road in Montecito, as well as between Carpinteria and La Conchita in Ventura County.
By the end of the overall project, about 16 miles of Highway 101 will be widened.
Comments on the draft EIR can be sent no later than Jan. 31 to Wilkinson at [email protected]