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Judge Orders EIR Revisions for Santa Barbara Highway 101 Widening Project

The second lawsuit challenging the environmental documents for the Highway 101 widening project in southern Santa Barbara County was successful in two of its three claims, and  Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle has ordered Caltrans to revise and recirculate portions of the environmental impact report.

Anderle, who issued his ruling Tuesday, agreed that the Caltrans EIR was inadequate in the way it analyzes impacts to local intersections and cumulative traffic impacts from the project, which will add a third lane in each direction of Highway 101 between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.

He vacated project approvals, ordering Caltrans to prepare and circulate a revised EIR to address the issues he found inadequate.

Attorney Marc Chytilo, representing petitioners who call themselves the Transportation Futures Committee, said Anderle agreed that Caltrans didn’t properly consider project impacts to intersections.

There are nine in particular on the South Coast that Caltrans’ own traffic studies showed would be significantly affected by the freeway project, he said.

With this ruling, Caltrans will have to re-address these areas of the EIR and recirculate it with another public-input process, Chytilo said.

“Even ​Caltrans' woefully inadequate analysis shows their 101 Widening Project would simply trade interim improvement in traffic flow on 101 for unmitigated gridlock on south coast surface streets and interchanges,” said Michael Gibian, president of the Committees for Land, Air, Water and Species and the Transportation Futures Committee.

“We simply can't accept that tradeoff without a complete disclosure of the impacts and a careful analysis of potential mitigation measures. TFC and CLAWS welcome the Court's ruling requiring the agency to conduct a true assessment of these issues to inform a project that best serves our community’s crucial transportation future,” he said in a statement.

Anderle rejected one of the TFC claims, that the widening project would have negative traffic impacts on other areas of Highway 101, saying it wasn't brought up in a timely manner during the public comment period.

The first related case to go before Anderle was shot down in all its claims, which centered on noise impacts to Montecito-area residents.

The other case was “mostly just looking at noise impacts for a handful of homes, and we’re looking at larger, community-wide impacts,” Chytilo told Noozhawk.

Scroll down to read the tentative ruling.

“​Caltrans will carefully review the court ruling today and comply accordingly,” Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said in a statement. 

“We believe this project will provide substantial traffic congestion relief for travelers who use this busy corridor and will continue working closely with our partners to move it forward.”

It's unclear what delays the court ruling will cause the project, according to Caltrans.

“As we proceed with recirculating a portion of the EIR, Caltrans will continue to perform important ongoing work with our partners to move the project forward and to minimize any further delays,” Shivers said.

“We are pleased that the judge’s direction is narrowly focused and that the court supported the vast majority of the EIR for this project. We are unable to announce a timetable for completion of this work until after we have carefully reviewed the court ruling.”

The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments declined to comment on the court ruling.

“Every day our local economy and quality of life of our residents are negatively impacted by the congestion on Highway 101 and the resulting effects on local roads and air quality,” First District County Supervisor Salud Carbajal said in a statement.

Carbajal is a member of SBCAG and represents the district in which the project will be built.

“We need to continue to do everything we can to move forward with the planned widening of Highway 101 in a timely way. The voters overwhelming supported funding this vitally needed project, which is the result of many years of community dialogue and planning, as leaders we need to honor those commitments,” Carbajal said. 

In a statement Tuesday night, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said, “My initial review of Judge Anderle’s tentative ruling reflects what I believe our residents want: a good project that will reduce traffic congestion during commute times from the county line to their workplace.

“Judge Anderle’s ruling confirms the 2012 comments from both the city and county of Santa Barbara, which expressed concerns of the inadequate analysis in the draft environmental impact report about traffic impacts throughout many Highway 101 intersections, many of which could result in additional traffic congestion at those intersections and on local streets. I will continue to work with my colleagues and other regional partners to expeditiously finalize the necessary work that lie ahead to move this important project forward.”

Schneider, who along with Councilman Bendy White supported the lawsuits against the project, has pushed for city construction projects to go forward simultaneously with the Caltrans/SBCAG project: a Union Pacific Railroad bridge replacement over Cabrillo Boulevard and improvements to intersections on Olive Mill Road and San Ysidro Road.

The proposed roundabout at Olive Mill Road will go before the Montecito Planning Commission and Santa Barbara County Planning Commission in January and Union Pacific gave written approval to continue with bridge design, Schneider said. Neither project has identified funding. 

The 10-mile project is currently in the design and engineering phase, with Caltrans designing the southern end, from Padaro Lane to Carpinteria, and an SBCAG consultant designing the northern end, from Santa Barbara to Padaro Lane. 

The widening project, also known as the South Coast 101 HOV Lanes Project, will be constructed in phases. 

It is expected to cost $435 million and most funding is local so far, with $140 million coming from Santa Barbara County’s Measure A and another $135 million from 15 years worth of the county’s share of gas taxes.

There is still a $150 million gap in funding. 

Assemblyman Das Williams, who is running for Carbajal’s First District seat, called the ruling unfortunate and said it will cause delays. 

The project is not perfect, he told Noozhawk, “but the sad thing is that the recirculation will cause tens of thousands of people to be sitting in traffic and increasing pollution where we all live and work for years to come.”

“I hope (the recirculation) will create additional improvements, but again, I just think all of us want this done in our lifetime, and anybody who has to travel around for their work and livelihood knows it’s pretty bad out there and causing everybody economic harm, including our biz community and causing workers lost time with their families — and costing the environment a whole lot more traffic pollution than necessary.”

Santa Barbara County Investment Officer Jennifer Christensen, another candidate for the First District seat, said, “Judge Anderle’s decision is a clear reminder that local jurisdictions know what is best for them. Protecting the environment and preserving the character of our communities should be top priorities for local government.

“Caltrans, as an agency of the State, failed to act in a manner required by state law. Private citizens were forced to spend their own money to have the impacts of the 101 project analyzed under the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. As a result of this failure, precious time and money have been wasted when the county can ill afford it. Given the strain on the county’s financial resources, this is not only untenable but also indefensible,” she said in a written statement to Noozhawk.

“How we move forward with the 101 project is a longer conversation that will require true leadership. I think our communities' needs and the project’s objective of traffic mitigation were best served by vacating the project approval. Now we look forward and figure out how to do this correctly.”

Last month, the Carpinteria City Council approved the related Caltrans Highway 101 project that will widen the Linden Avenue and Casitas Pass Road interchanges, extend Via Real and replace a highway bridge over Carpinteria Creek.

Noozhawk managing editor 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.

Santa Barbara Superior Court Tentative Ruling Transportation Futures Committee v Caltrans

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