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Weighing Safety and Preservation, Santa Barbara Moves Ahead with Mission Canyon Bridge Project

Before addressing the controversial issue, City Council adopted its fiscal year 2017 budget

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday voted to continue pursuing rehabilitation of the Mission Canyon bridge near the Santa Barbara Mission.
The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday voted to continue pursuing rehabilitation of the Mission Canyon bridge near the Santa Barbara Mission. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Most of today’s Mission Canyon bridge on the Upper Eastside has been around since the late 19th century.

The historic nature of the bridge, however, means that it also isn’t entirely equipped for the heightened safety issues of 21st-century transportation.

The issue of enhancing safety versus preserving the historical character and structure of the bridge was at the heart of the Santa Barbara City Council’s consideration Tuesday of whether to continue exploring funding opportunities for rehabilitating the bridge.

On a 6–1 vote to move forward, the council ultimately prioritized addressing what it saw as legitimate safety needs.

Three northbound collisions have occurred on the bridge over the past 10 years, city transportation staff said, and nine more southbound collisions over the same period have occurred along a curve leading up to it.

Principal transportation planner Rob Dayton said that every day, roughly 10,000 cars cross the bridge, which spans Mission Creek and connects the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History with Mission Santa Barbara.

The 33-foot-wide bridge, he told the council, is six feet shorter than the state’s preferred width. It was widened once in the 1930s, he said.

The narrowness of Los Olivos Street on the south side and Mission Canyon Road on the north side makes the tight curves trickier for drivers and the roadway uncomfortable for pedestrians and cyclists, according to city staff.

Supervising Transportation Engineer Derrick Bailey said that while the tighter curves have made drivers uncomfortable and cause them to slow down to a degree, the current, narrow roadway has still led to collisions.

The rehab project, Dayton explained, would widen the road on each end of the bridge and, powered by potential state funding, widen the bridge to 44 feet and include a new sidewalk.

“It would have to be done very carefully in terms of making it look like it was always” the original width, he said, addressing the preservation of its historic look.

Staff estimated the cost of designing and constructing the improvements at $8 million to $10 million, $1 million to $2 million of which would ultimately come from the city.

Funding from the state’s Active Transportation Program, which requires an application and is by no means guaranteed, would cover a significant portion of the costs, a lopsided city–state funding ratio many of the council members found enticing.

The public’s and residents’ intense hesitancy to modify the historic bridge at all gave city staff pause, Dayton said.

“This is probably one of the most sensitive places of our community for historic resources,” he said. “So I think that the solution has not emerged until recent times because of the challenges of the historic resources in this area. There are many very, very significant landmarks for the city.”

Although many of the members of the public who spoke — along with city transportation staff and several of the council members — expressed confidence that a solution could be reached that addressed safety issues while preserving the bridge’s historic qualities, the competing priorities still sharply divided the public.

A dozen residents of the area, many of whom were a part of neighborhood organizations, advocated for both sides before the council.

In addition to car speed and pedestrian safety, modifications are needed to make the road and bridge a safer corridor for people fleeing a fire, argued Ray Smith, chairman of the Mission Canyon Association’s Fire Committee.

Though they were both in support of the project, councilmen Gregg Hart and Bendy White mentioned that the city’s severely limited infrastructure funds posed a legitimate concern to paying for  new projects.

“I think looking at the improvements is wise,” Councilman Randy Rowse said.

The project’s potential to promote active transportation between the museum and the Mission was an opportunity the council shouldn’t pass up, Rowse said, even if grants cannot ultimately be secured.

After Councilman Frank Hotchkiss asked Bailey how many pedestrian and bicycle collisions the bridge has seen in the last decade — to which Bailey said zero — Hotchkiss likened the project to “elective surgery” compared to other city infrastructure needs.

“That response makes it really difficult for me to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Hotchkiss said.

Safety concerns could be likened to running with scissors, Rowse later added; you may not know someone who’s been injured from running with them, but measures should still be taken to prevent potential accidents.

Because some of the proposed improvements would occur on county land — the boundary with the city sits at the north end of the bridge — the project would be undertaken in a city–county partnership.

The adoption of the city’s fiscal year 2017 budget, which the council took up right before diving into the bridge issue, was a comparatively simpler task.

Approved unanimously, the budget, developed during numerous hearings and workshops over the past few months, will take effect July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

Fees relating to planning and development will be up $47,000 for the year, along with new fees and fines related to the new noise ordinance.

The city is reallocating $810,000 to bolster its ailing streets fund and paving needs for fiscal year 2017.

Taking money from the General Fund’s capital program to fund paving was a difficult process, White said.

The effects of reallocating nearly $1 million are visible, he added, saying that it represents the “triage mode” the city is in when it comes to funding infrastructure needs.

The budget also grants $180,000 to outside organizations, a significant portion of which goes to PATH, which runs the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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.

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