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Transit Lane for Trolleys on Upper State?

Imagine an upper State Street where trolleys and street cars occupy their very own lane in the middle of the road, like in San Francisco.

Imagine an upper State Street where trolleys and street cars occupy their very own lane in the middle of the road — like in San Francisco — and cars rarely, if ever, need to brake for buses.

This is the notion the Santa Barbara City Council set in motion last week. The idea of putting the city’s first-ever  “transit lane” on upper State is just the newest aspect of a comprehensive plan for the future of that area. The one-and-a-half-mile corridor known as upper State stretches from Calle Laureles near Longs Drug up to where State turns into Hollister just past the Five Points shopping center.

As it is, many residents feel the area leaves much to be desired, according to a yearlong study. The proximity of skinny sidewalks to whizzing cars and jam-packed strip-mall parking lots tends to discourage foot traffic. And the gridlock — despite the city’s stagnating population — is getting worse and worse.

Ultimately, the goal for upper State is to relieve congestion, create pedestrian pathways and draft a set of guidelines for the future development of housing and businesses in the area.

It’s a process that has been in motion for some time. In May, following a yearlong study aided by public input, the council settled on a lengthy list of general concerns, like the need to preserve mountain views, create pedestrian pathways, restore the two nearby creeks and plant more trees. On Tuesday, it was asked to kick-start the nuts-and-bolts portion of the project: setting the guidelines on how to achieve those and other general goals.

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But the council on Tuesday decided to slow down and take a step back. Instead of moving forward with a study for the guidelines — which came with an estimated price tag of $300,000 — council members bemoaned a missing piece of the puzzle: mass transit.

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Das Williams
“An upper State Street plan without a transit lane is a huge gaping hole,” Councilman Das Williams said. “It takes 45 or 50 minutes to get from downtown (Santa Barbara) to Goleta by bus. If that changes to half an hour, that changes the whole equation.”

The council wound up directing the city staff to begin gearing up for a transit study. Such a study could examine whether it would be better to put a transit lane in the middle of the road or on the side. Or how to pay for the extra lane.

The staff is expected to recommend the scope of the study to the council before the end of the month. If approved, the staff will solicit proposals from consultants vying to do the study.

Financially, the transit study means the city will be spending more money. The $300,000 guideline study is still in the wings, and the city does not yet have an estimate for the newly ordered transit report.

“This is expensive, and we know it,” Mayor Marty Blum said. “But we feel like we need to do this.”

Councilman Grant House said he is excited about the prospect of establishing a lane dedicated to some sort of trolley or street car.

“The new ones are really cool,” he said after the council meeting. “Man, these things — you want to go in and ride them. It’s like Disneyland or something.”

Realistically, though, paving a special lane for a street car, trolley or bus is a distant possibility. The study alone could take a year. Add to that the time it takes to finish up the area’s broader design guidelines and then complete the roadway construction, and it could be years.

“Just to get recycling bins on State Street took eight years,” said Blum, referring to how long a project can take. “But you can’t get good federal money for these things unless you have a good plan, so were starting out with a plan.”

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Brian Barnwell
Councilman Brian Barnwell said the transit study should also address parking.

“If you want people to use local transit along the State Street corridor then you need to get them a place to park their car,” he said. “You don’t want them to get in the car every single time they go from one end of State Street to another.”

He said he would like to see the kind of public parking lots on upper State Street that currently exists downtown. He added that all parking for new upper State Street projects should go underground, "until the end of time." This, he said, will pave the way for tearing up existing above-ground parking lots — like the ones at La Cumbre Plaza — and replacing them with a street grid system and pedestrian pathways.

The plan to improve upper State Street began about a year and a half ago. It started with a spate of development proposals, such as the soon-to-begin replacement of the building containing Circuit City with a Whole Foods Market and some residential units, a yet-to-begin condo project near the Sandman Inn, and another residential project near State Street and La Cumbre Plaza.

These and other projects prompted city leaders to ponder the idea of creating a blueprint for the future of the area, which until now has been developed in piecemeal fashion.

Some improvements have already occurred. For instance, buses on upper State recently started arriving every 10 minutes, instead of every 15. As a result, ridership is up 8 or 9 percent, officials say.

Not everyone believes upper State Street needs a major makeover. The League of Women Voters has expressed concern that the current council may try to turn upper State Street into another downtown, where the stores are expensive and store-front parking is virtually nonexistent.

“A lot of these people are men,” League member Cathie McCammon said of city officials. “And they don’t have to do family shopping."

She added: “We have no problem with better transit and better bus service. It’s just we don’t want to see it change too drastically so people will decide not to go there.”

All told, setting guidelines for turning the area into a more pleasant place has proved more daunting than some council members expected.

“This little appetizer,” said council member Helene Schneider, “is turning into a full-course meal.”

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