Gridlock Grips Montecito

By Bob Hazard   |   August 1, 2019

It is August, and the living in Montecito is easy… or at least it should be. Gone are May Gray and June Gloom; in their place are sunny skies, a beautiful blue-green ocean and mild temperatures. For the first time in seven years, we have adequate water with no prospect of mandatory rationing. Happiness prevails. Not even the two-day closure of the on- and off-ramps at the 101 Hot Springs interchange to remove the homeless encampments enshrined in the shrubbery can disturb our summertime serenity.

Threat to Our Community Character

For those of us not traveling, a single irritant continues to jar. One day last week at 3:30 pm, a driver stood outside his car in the middle of Coast Village Road (CVR), door open, peering ahead trying to discover why some 200 cars, vans and trucks on CVR were bumper-to-bumper all the way from the Old Coast Highway Traffic Circle to the Montecito Inn. There was no accident: just gridlock, an everyday community aggravation for CVR and its surrounding environs. The message transmitted to Montecito customers is to stay away from Coast Village Road and Coast Village Circle, between 3 pm and 6 pm, seven days a week, all summer.

Montecito may have to grit its collective teeth for another 10 years due to the closure of the southbound on-ramp to the 101 at Cabrillo Boulevard. Rob Dayton, Santa Barbara City Transportation Planning Manager and other traffic planners, insisted that closing the southbound entry ramp to the 101 at Cabrillo Boulevard during the Milpas to Hot Springs widening in 2012 would have little traffic impact on CVR. Their opinion was that vehicles leaving the hotels and beaches of Santa Barbara could easily be diverted by signage to enter the 101 at the Milpas interchange, rather than rerouting to Coast Village Road to enter the southbound 101 at Olive Mill Road.

The result of this miscalculation is that Montecito residents will do everything they can to avoid CVR and the 101 during “rush” hours, so instead they clog Hot Springs Road from Vons to Sycamore Canyon to Olive Mill, Summit, Middle, Olive Mill, and East Valley Road, along with Cabrillo Boulevard, Old Coast Highway, North Jameson Lane, San Ysidro Road, and Sheffield Drive: in other words, most of the connectors through Montecito.

Local congestion has arrived. Waze and similar GPS routing systems are instructing 101 travelers to reroute through our village, destroying our most precious asset, our so-called “semi-rural lifestyle.”

Is Relief Just a Few Years Away?

Caltrans traffic counts, called AADT (Annual Average Daily Traffic) for the 101 through Montecito currently range from 70,000 to 94,000 cars, trucks and vans per day. The bad news is that regardless of what we do, traffic counts are projected to rise from the current high of 94,000 vehicles per day to 140,000 cars, trucks and vans by 2040. That represents a nearly 50% increase in traffic in the next 20 years, whether we widen or not. Without the 101 widening, Caltrans engineers project the current stop-and-go gridlock will expand to 11 hours per day by 2040, instead of the current six hours today during the morning and evening commutes.

Why the added traffic load on the 101? Population growth in Santa Barbara County is projected to increase 23% by 2040. At the same time, interregional long distance commuting due to the high cost of local housing is expected to exacerbate the current traffic loads.

When the widening of 101 is finally finished, hopefully by 2030, or a year or two earlier, much of the gain in lane capacity will have been negated by higher traffic counts. Theoretically, adding a third lane in each direction should add a 33% traffic capacity, but the assignment of an HOV designation to the new lane will restrict usage to carpools, buses and emergency vehicles during commute hours.

Longer Term Traffic Outlook

Three other factors create unfortunate consequences. After the completion of the 101 widening, Caltrans plans no major new construction projects on this portion of the 101 for the following 75 years, except for maintenance. This means we had better get this right the first time – the right divider median, the right lane widths, the right interchanges, the right overpasses, the right entry and exit ramps, the right traffic flow, the right inside and outside shoulder widths; the right parallel projects, the right local improvements, the right visual impact, the right aesthetics, because significant additional funding is not on the way.

The City and its transportation planners will control the widening process at the Carrillo Boulevard and the Olive Mill interchanges; county planning will control the widening projects at San Ysidro and Sheffield. Montecito controls nothing. Its only voting voice is through its 1st District Supervisor who also represents Carpinteria, Summerland, the City of Santa Barbara and Cuyama.

Fred Luna, Engineer for SBCAG, calls the Montecito right-of-way “the most constricted project I have ever worked on.” Not only will a tight corridor in Montecito elongate construction time for this portion of the widening, it will also restrict ramp improvements and traffic flow. Montecito will be penalized by a two-foot center concrete median divider; minimal inside shoulder widths for road maintenance, trash collection, accidents, disabled vehicles, or traffic safety stops; and very limited landscaping options. In Montecito, the right-of-way is so narrow that no further lane additions are possible without future private property acquisitions, utilizing unpopular and expensive eminent domain techniques.

The second disturbing factor is that Caltrans does not have any plan to add a third major North-South highway project to supplement the I-5 and the 101 coastal corridor to carry interstate traffic from Tijuana, Mexico to the northern California border and beyond. The bullet train debacle and the Governor’s inherited Twin Tunnel proposal for water have sucked all the energy out of big statewide capital projects. It does not help now that federal funding for California is politically under attack.

The third factor is that the idea of “a lane and a train” has morphed into mostly “A Lane for Our Domain.” The Union Pacific freight railroad, privately owned, allows limited runs of the once-a-day Amtrak Coast Starlight and the more frequent Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. When the debris flow closed the 101 for weeks in January 2018, a massive effort was made to switch commuters to train. Schedules were revamped and local buses and bicycles were added to rail stations to help attract commuters. The result was a daily average of 105 dedicated train riders – merely a pinprick on the tens of thousands of cars per day now traveling the 101 through Montecito.

Dreams of a “Multimodal Corridor” make for good headlines, but the reality is that the work force in Santa Barbara and Montecito demands its cars and service trucks to accommodate flexible work schedules.

The Promise and Reality

The program known as “101 in Motion” approved in 2006 made a promise to develop, fund and constructlong-term solutions to the growing congestion problem along 16 miles of the 101 corridor from the Milpas intersection in Santa Barbara to Mussel Shoals. The 101 in Motionteam worked for over two years to develop a package of solutions that garnered broad-based community support.

The five component parts were: 1) Add a carpool HOV lane in both directions and commuter rail from Camarillo to Goleta ($626 million); 2) Facilitate transit and carpool use, especially bus service ($62 million); 3) Manage commuter demand by creating van pool incentives, carpooling, encourage telecommuting, promote flextime, vary parking rates ($27 million); 4) Install meters at selected ramps and provide commuter information displays ($28 million); 5) Improve the 101 North of Milpas to assuage the City of Santa Barbara ($90 million). The total cost of the program was to be $833 million in 2006 dollars.

Benefits Promised in 2006

In 2006, the 101 in Motion program made the following promises for 2030. Completion of the project would: 1) Keep the duration of congestion on Highway 101 to only one to two hours per day, rather than from early morning to eight at night, which would be the case if nothing were done; 2) Shave 15-20 minutes off of the commute time from Carpinteria to downtown Santa Barbara via either the freeway or commuter rail; 3) Reduce traffic on local streets in neighborhoods that parallel Highway 101; 4) Eliminate a total of 16,500 person hours of delay each day; 5) Significantly reduce the accident potential along Highway 101 by providing much smoother flow; 6) Increase modal choices that will give commuters increased alternatives to driving alone and result in 3,800 fewer single occupant vehicle trips on Highway 101 each day; 7) Allow for continued economic prosperity in the South Coast, that otherwise would be stymied by the extreme levels of congestion in the corridor; and 8) Relative contributions of the individual elements in reducing congestion south of Milpas were pegged at HOV lanes 64%; commuter rail 18%; operational improvements 9%; and demand management 9%.

How many of these promises will be kept in 2030 when the widening project is completed? Right now, the prospects are not rosy, but the professional team in place and the availability of fresh funding offer hope and cheer that despite the hurdles to Montecito, many self-inflicted by our own poor decisions, the current plan is far superior to the triple options of doing nothing, blaming Caltrans or advocating further delay.

Next week, we’ll examine who the players are that will make the decisions for the widening of the 101 as to project funding, construction schedules, engineering, permitting, design review and the construction of both the mainline freeway and its parallel projects?

We’ll deal with what role, if any, Montecito will play in these decisions, and how Montecito can mitigate the pain as the widening moves slowly from Carpinteria northward to Santa Claus Lane, through Summerland to the Sheffield interchange and then through the most constricted and difficult slog of all from the Sheffield interchange to San Ysidro, from San Ysidro to Olive Mill, and from Olive Mill to Cabrillo Boulevard/Hot Springs and on to Sycamore Creek. We’ll also examine why Montecito has been penalized by being the last stretch of roadway to be widened in this decades-long Caltrans project.

 

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