At Long Last, the Apocalyptic 101 Freeway Widening Project is Upon Us

By Nick Schou   |   November 12, 2020
101 Northbound sound wall by Sheffield Drive

By the time you read this, the outcome of the U.S. presidential race may not be decided, but one thing will be certain: The much-anticipated 101 Freeway widening project, which will add two new lanes between Summerland and Santa Barbara over the next three years, will not only not be over, it will have already started to slowly drive you nuts.

On October 31, Caltrans crews began shutting down ramps at Sheffield Drive for intermittent periods during daytime hours, creating a snarl of traffic along North Jameson Road, between Sheffield and San Ysidro Road. These periodic closures will soon become long term, with the Sheffield Drive onramp closed for the duration of the three-year project and the off-ramp scheduled to be shut down for 16 months.

View of Evans Avenue toward the ocean

According to Caltrans, these long-term ramp closures will commence on November 15, at which point flaggers will be directing traffic at the intersection of San Ysidro Road and North Jameson Lane. “Crews will be removing old pavement and excavating near the bridge,” the agency explained in a press release. “Then crews will install shoring piles to support the construction zone. Once installed, crews will begin installing supports (piles) for portions of the new bridges in the median.

Although the press release doesn’t say this, the phrase “shoring piles” ought to come with a trigger warning: It is loud, loud work, complete with the headache inducing sound of the incessant slamming of steel upon steel. But it’s less the noise and more the extra-slow traffic that is likely to cause Montecitans major headaches during the course of the multi-year project, although Caltrans says it has a plan for that. “The combination of new stop signs and flaggers will enable a better flow of traffic during the detour that uses the southbound Highway 101 off-ramp at San Ysidro Road.”

Ortega Hill sound wall

If there’s good news here – and we could certainly use some – it’s two-fold. First of all, while the prospect of dealing with ramp closures and other massive construction along the 101 Freeway for the next three years sounds like a logistical nightmare, Caltrans is taking that long specifically because it plans to keep all four existing lanes of the freeway (two in either direction) completely open during the lifetime of the project. In other words, while local street traffic will be severely impacted, at least the traffic on the freeway itself will be moving along without interruption.

Secondly, the widening project is creating new lanes out of the median in between the north and southbound lanes of the freeway, rather than carving new lanes on the outside perimeter of the project area. That fact, along with some extremely careful designs aimed at preserving Montecito’s semi-rural feel and dedication to both bike and pedestrian beach access, has won over local skeptics worried about the aesthetic impact of the project on our beautiful locale.

Opposition to the project goes all the way back to its conception in the 1990s, when Caltrans originally predicted, based on demographic growth patterns, that traffic in Santa Barbara was going to become severely impacted in the next few decades because of rising property values in town and the consequence that more people would need to commute to their jobs from homes further away along the freeway. Although the late 1990s tech bubble temporarily slowed down that inexorable trend, freeway traffic through Santa Barbara and particularly Montecito has been a nightmare for years now, with the result that local residents and some impatient freeway commuters have shifted their routes to streets such as Old Coast Highway and Coast Village Road, the latter of which, like the southbound 101 itself, is now a virtual parking lot during the evening rush hour. 

Sheffield intersection landscaped

Perhaps the key local figure behind this widening project is Second District Santa Barbara Supervisor Gregg Hart, who used to work for the Southern California Association of Governments and has thus been involved in freeway planning issues for decades. “When Caltrans first came forward with a plan to widen the 101 Freeway, at that point in time there was very little traffic congestion,” Hart said. “It was really only on Sundays when people were returning to L.A.”

According to Hart, however, the original plan Caltrans put forth to widen the freeway to three lanes in each direction did not get the desired response. “The agency was clumsy in those days and came up with a design plan that totally backfired,” he said. “They used graphics that showed the infrastructure changes without landscaping, so the visual images were denuded of vegetation and people were alarmed and the community was not supportive of it at all.”

Official map of the next phase of the 101 widening project

After scrapping the project amid stiff resistance from locals, Caltrans settled on a series of smaller projects, identifying so-called traffic “impact zones” where highly localized congestion could be relieved relatively easily, with one example being the Coast Village Road roundabout that Caltrans installed near the Vons Supermarket. In 2008, Caltrans secured new funding to widen the 101 Freeway via a half-cent gas tax, millions in cash that will mostly cover the expense of the project, although Hart said additional funding from Sacramento should hopefully arrive by December 2, which will be used specifically for the stretch of work that will take place between Sheffield Drive and Milpas Street. 

“The good news is that this time, the design of the project is approved by everybody and everybody recognizes that the traffic problem is severe,” Hart said. “And Caltrans is committed to keeping both freeway lanes open in both directions during the construction. People have the misconception that freeway construction makes traffic worse, but the construction is not going to limit the capacity of the freeway, and when we get done with this, people won’t be clogging up Coast Village Road and things will be much better in the neighborhood.”

San Ysidro Roundabout Still on Track Despite Last-Ditch Appeal

Speak of local traffic, the complicated intersection of San Ysidro Road with North Jameson Lane and the 101 Freeway overpass is still set to be replaced with a roundabout, despite a last-ditch appeal that is causing for a bit of a delay. According to Chris Sneddon, a deputy director with Santa Barbara County’s Public Works Department, the roundabout – an oblong oval that forces cars to slow down while providing ample room for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross over the freeway to the beach – has already sailed through all its local design and construction approvals at both the Montecito Planning Commission and Montecito Board of Architectural Review. 

However, on July 1, 2020, California agencies were instructed to add a new level of analysis to their environmental review process by estimating how many additional miles of road traffic are being added because of any particular development. Obviously, a roundabout project, by its very nature, doesn’t add vehicle trips but rather slightly changes the nature of those trips, i.e. by having motorists going around a small circle instead of stopping and starting at a regular intersection. But that didn’t stop an appeal by an eagle-eyed Buellton resident who is insisting that the San Ysidro roundabout follow the new criteria. 

“We feel that the appeal should be denied because our project predates when this was a requirement of environmental analysis,” Sneddon said. “And secondly, roundabout projects are exempt from this criteria even under the new guidelines.” Sneddon added that Santa Barbara County should be hearing the appeal as early as November 17. Unless the California Coastal Commission takes up any additional appeals on the project, Sneddon hopes the roundabout will be quickly cleared for construction.

“We are trying to make sure this project is synched up with the 101 widening project,” Sneddon said. “The sooner we get it ready, the more possible it is that these improvements can be done to reduce the impact on local traffic while the freeway is being rebuilt.”


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