The Need for Forward Thinking on the 101

By Bob Hazard   |   December 20, 2018

To plan for the future, it is helpful to recall the past. Montecito’s relationship with the 101 highway dates back 92 years to 1927 when residents approached the State Division of Highways asking them to pave the two dirt lanes through Montecito. John Jameson led a crusade to design America’s first scenic parkway, using planted center dividers, landscaped shoulders, and a frontage road. In 1937, Jameson’s parkway was extended from Olive Mill to San Ysidro, and in 1949 to Sheffield Road.

Jameson raised private funds to purchase the right-of-way for what became North Jameson and South Jameson Lanes when the Division of Highways refused to allocate funds for that purpose. Where would we be today without North Jameson Lane stretching from Olive Mill to Sheffield Drive, serving as the third lane of the 101 during both the morning and the evening peak hour commutes?

In 1954, a plan was devised to remove the local traffic lights on the 101. It took 34 years, until May 1988, to get the job done. The story of the 101 is a story of good intentions, questionable enlightenment and missed opportunities.

1989-1993: Don’t Widen Because We Will Lose Our Parkway Look

In 1989, a 101 widening project was included in the list of Measure D projects approved by voters. Widening to three lanes was initially popular, until 1992 when “Grassroots 101,” under the leadership of Alex Pujo,was formed. Fearful that widening might reduce the width of median landscaping, Montecito voters narrowly rejected the project.

At a crucial meeting of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) in the spring of 1993, then Supervisor Naomi Schwartz deemed the 101 widening plan to be “inadequate to protect the scenic character of the freeway.” The decision was made to put aside the widening and study alternatives.

Caltrans had funding for the widening in-hand and the design was shovel-ready. However, Caltrans immediately shifted funding to more receptive transportation projects, while Montecito went to the back-of-the-line for future funding.

Representative Lois Capps sounded the alarm in September 1993: “The daily frustration of traffic gridlock on Highway 101 demands our immediate attention. The truth is we should have done something long ago, but we didn’t.” That regret has haunted us for the last 30 years.

1993-2019: Montecito Has No Seat at the SBCAG All-Important Decision-Making Table

SBCAG, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, has federal and state responsibility for the final design and funding of all Santa Barbara County transportation-related projects. It allocates gas tax funds, Transportation Development Act (TDA) and Measure D funds; sets work priorities for specific projects; and plans for our transportation future. Membership in SBCAG includes the County’s eight incorporated cities: Guadalupe, Lompoc, Buellton, Solvang, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Carpinteria – plus the five County Supervisors.

The result is that tiny Buellton with 4,828 residents, Solvang with 5,245 residents, and Guadalupe with only 7,080 residents have more say over 101 design, funding, and widening schedules than Montecito’s 8,965 residents, whose sole influence at SBCAG is County Supervisor Das Williams, whose responsibilities include Carpinteria, Summerland, most of the City of Santa Barbara, and Cuyama, in addition to Montecito. 

Montecito is only an echo in its advisory role. Now and in the future, we need a voting seat at the SBCAG table to plan, design, allocate funding, and minimize traffic congestion that affects our community character and quality of life.

Closure of the Southbound On-Ramp at the Cabrillo/Hot Springs Interchange

Montecito had no say in the closing of the southbound entrance to the 101 at Cabrillo Boulevard, which rerouted Santa Barbara beach and hotel traffic onto Coast Village Road, before entering the southbound 101 at Olive Mill Road. Santa Barbara City planners denied there would be a Montecito impact from the southbound closure, claiming they knew better.

The City of Santa Barbara controls the decisions made at the Olive Mill and the Cabrillo/Hot Springs interchanges. County Planners control the decisions made at the San Ysidro and Sheffield interchanges. Montecito controls nothing. We are politely asked to offer input, so others can make the critical decisions on our behalf.

SBCAG members routinely make deals among themselves. Should available gas tax funds be spent on street improvements and bikeways in Carpinteria, or on a bridge in Lompoc or Santa Maria, or for road improvements in Montecito? In the real world of deal-making and trading favors, Montecito has been left sitting on the sidelines.

2011: Successful Montecito Community Intervention Efforts in the 101 Widening Process

Individual efforts can have major consequences. In 2011, a coalition of Lower Village residents that included Martha Siegel, Sybil Rosen, J’Amy Brown,and Carla Tomson persuaded Caltrans engineers to add a new right-hand northbound 101 off-ramp to the final design for the Cabrillo/Hot Springs intersection. The original plan contemplated using the existing Hermosillo exit as the sole exit for local Montecito and beach-bound traffic. The revised design, now known as F-modified, has become the approved option for the Cabrillo/Hot Springs interchange.

Again in 2011, an alert Montecito resident Robertson (Bob) Short noticed that during the 2008-2012 widening of the northbound 101 from Cabrillo/Hot Springs to Milpas, Caltrans had been unable to negotiate with the Sunshine Trailer Park just north of the Salinas off-ramp for an additional 10 feet to widen the 101 to three lanes. Short suggested to Caltrans Engineers that shrinking the median strip from 10′ to 4½’ would allow for three lanes all the way to Milpas, proving once again that individual efforts can make a lifetime of difference.

2012-2016: The Montecito Association (MA) Community Coalition Effort to Retain Left Lane On-Off Ramps

Starting in 2012 and continuing for four years, a well-intentioned group of Montecito citizens, known first as the MA Community Coalition, and later as Common Sense 101, raised some $200,000 in community contributions to petition Governor Jerry Brown and Caltrans to retain the existing northbound left-lane off-ramp at Cabrillo Boulevard and the existing southbound left off-ramp at the Sheffield interchange.

Caltrans planners and the California Highway Patrol were adamant that left-lane on-off ramps on six-lane highways were unsafe. Caltrans officials feared that if Montecito were granted an exception, Caltrans would be legally liable for accidents because it had already declared left-lane ramps unsafe on six-lane highways.

The only result of the Common Sense 101 campaign was a four-year delay in the approval of the March 2012 Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the South Coast 101 HOV Lanes Project. An additional consequence was that the Montecito community was viewed as an obstructionist to widening efforts by both SBCAG and Caltrans. Wiser planners in Carpinteria eagerly embraced the widening process and secured early funding for their projects.

Environmental Impact Lawsuit Stops the Widening in the Montecito Corridor

In late 2014, a so-called “Transportation Futures Committee”‘ retained local attorney Marc S. Chytilo to challenge the Caltrans Environmental Impact Report (EIR), inducing another two-year delay for Montecito. This lawsuit, supported by then-Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, cemented the decision to widen first in Carpinteria, and push Montecito’s widening to the tail-end of the widening process.

Where Are We Now?

Our community is in for a bumpy ride for the foreseeable future. The North Jameson frontage road has already become the 3rd lane of the 101. In addition, commuters exit the 101 to use the Sheffield Drive to East Valley Road to Hot Springs/Olive Mill local roads to bypass the proverbial pig-in-a-python traffic snarl on the 101.

The reality is that until 2030, Montecito is likely to be the only stretch of 101 between Los Angeles and Goleta restricted to one or two lanes of traffic in each direction. A highway with a design capacity of 45,000 cars and trucks per day, will be asked to carry 100,000 vehicles per day through Montecito.

I’m sure that smarter minds than mine can suggest mitigations to reduce this greater gridlock and community frustration. Any ideas?

Next week: A Few Remedies for Montecito… A Focus on Solutions. What are the plans for widening the 101? What are the timeframes? What are the costs?


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