Friday, July 20 , 2018, 1:30 pm | Fair 75º


Helene Schneider: Highway 101 Widening Project Shouldn’t Be Rushed

Next Thursday, on Jan. 16, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments Board of Directors will hold a public hearing on the Highway 101 widening project. Expected testimony at this meeting will include the rationale from Caltrans officials for why they believe the environmental impact report provided adequate information to move the project forward as proposed.

Mayor Helene Schneider
Mayor Helene Schneider

This complex project is of great importance, especially as it relates to how it will be funded and the long-term impacts on city and regional infrastructure financing. The lengthy process has been frustrating to Santa Barbara residents, and I have been asked or told more than once to “just build it.”

It has become increasingly apparent that this project as currently designed and funded will result in significant additional traffic congestion on our local streets without the financial means to mitigate them. As frustrating as the current freeway traffic congestion is today, I want to make sure that Santa Barbara residents understand the current funding policies and the sacrifices to local streets and infrastructure the current widening plan entails.

First, three important facts:

» 1) In 2008, voters supported $140 million in Measure A funds to widen Highway 101. Measure A also designated funding for a variety of other projects, such as road repair and maintenance, increased bicycle paths, funding for alternative transportation and Safe Routes to Schools, among others.

» 2) SBCAG staff recently stated at a public meeting that the budget for Highway 101 freeway widening project as presented in the EIR is $425 million.

» 3) Even if SBCAG agrees with Caltrans now about the widening plan, construction would not begin until 2017.

I don’t believe the voters want a bad project. I do believe that they voted for Measure A for a variety of reasons, not just funding the freeway expansion project. I also believe that now is the time to answer the important questions at hand.

What many people do not realize about the funding plan is that in addition to the $140 million in Measure A funds, South Santa Barbara County will be required to sacrifice 20 years of gas tax funds, valued at $135 million. Historically, gas tax funds are used for local road repair and maintenance. This $135 million represents all the gas tax funds we are going to receive during this period of time. I believe this funding arrangement is a mistake for the City of Santa Barbara and all South Coast communities and needs to be amended.

Caltrans and SBCAG staff acknowledge that the project as presented will result in increased traffic congestion and other negative impacts on city streets; however, the project’s EIR fails to either address, mitigate or fund any solutions. One of the most glaring and publicized omissions is that of the Union Pacific Bridge bottleneck at the Cabrillo Boulevard-Highway 101 interchange.

In fact, SBCAG staff recently stated at a Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce meeting that all mitigation projects along the Highway 101 corridor would cost $110 million.

The SBCAG staff report for Thursday states that instead of including these mitigations as part of the Highway 101 widening project, “Caltrans proposes that local improvements be considered during the coastal development permitting process that will be taking place after the final EIR is certified.” The concern here is that if these mitigations are not part of the overall project, then there’s no guarantee that funding will be made available for them.

SBCAG staff says these projects would be eligible for non-101 Measure A local funding or through various competitive grants. What this means is that South Coast voters will be allocating significantly more than the $140 million they authorized for the Highway 101 widening project in order to mitigate its negative impacts. Spending Measure A funds on the mitigating projects means that these funds will no longer be available for other important projects (e.g. street repairs, bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects). Is that really what the voters intended when they supported Measure A?

The potential total price tag in local tax dollars for the project as proposed with the mitigations that even Caltrans and SBCAG staff admit are necessary is: $140 million (voter-approved Measure A) + $135 million (gas tax funds) + $110 million (additional non-Highway 101 Measure A funds toward mitigating projects) = $385 million. Note that another $150 million is still needed to totally compete the project.

In contrast, Ventura County taxpayers did not spend any local funds on the Highway 101 widening project under way in their county. In fact, I don’t know of any other community in the state paying 70 percent of a highway project.

To date, Caltrans has not committed any part of the additional money required to mitigate the negative impacts of this project. In fact, the director of Caltrans told me in person, “We’re not touching that bridge” while pointing to the Union Pacific Bridge on a map.

Agreeing to “just build it” today means agreeing to an incomplete project without proper mitigations — unless we make huge sacrifices away from non-Highway 101 related Measure A projects. The $140 million voters approved in Measure A was meant to be an incentive for Caltrans to widen Highway 101. We need an EIR that includes all necessary mitigations and guarantees of state funding, not an incomplete EIR with a hodgepodge of separate mitigation projects that will rob our local road and infrastructure funds for a generation.

Helene Schneider is the mayor of Santa Barbara.

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