Montecito’s Traffic Forecast for the Next Few Years

It’s 3’oclock in the afternoon on a Friday, and Montecito traffic is reaching its peak. On Highway 101 south at San Ysidro Road, Montecito’s entrance corridor, a battery of cars slow to a crawl and clog both lanes. This is when traffic patterns begin to change.

Motoring opportunists slink off onto the San Ysidro off-ramp, filtering into this town’s main arteries and sub-arteries. Miles back, near Summerland, others have already done the same, hustling onto side streets and eventually onto East Valley Road, which with some dutiful maneuvering will lead them into east Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, Montecito Union School has just gotten out and cars are flowing onto San Ysidro Road to join the ranks of construction trucks, pool repair vans and other types of service vehicles. The line at the Jameson Lane stop sign, on the way to the highway, stretches back inexorably before fading into obscurity. Traffic queues like this one are developing everywhere in town, and through windshields drivers’ faces give the bleak look of reluctant tolerance, of restrained frustration.

Amidst everything that is unfolding, it is impossible not to wonder what traffic here will be like two, three or even four years from now. What will happen when the Music Academy of the West construction begins, or the bulk of the Coral Casino rehabilitation or the Montecito Country Club restoration? What will happen if the Westmont College development – the largest proposed construction in the history of Montecito – gets approved, and what if its neighbor, Cold Spring School, undergoes concurrently its $14-million build-out? Most significantly, what will happen to Montecito traffic when the Highway 101 Operational Improvements begins in 2008 with the expansion of the freeway between Hot Springs Road and Milpas Street?

The closest answer so far, traffic experts say, is that volumes will reach record-breaking numbers and cause dire road safety and infrastructure situations that could never have been predicted. Local leaders already have a name for this impending phenomenon: the “perfect storm,” an unpreventable convergence of events that together produce a large-scale and untenable problem.

The Congestion Trend

Until this spring, the last reliable traffic study done in Montecito was in 1992, when the founding fathers and mothers of the Montecito Community Plan, the local land use constitution, devised an imperfect traffic formula and attributed every street with volume limits. The thresholds were apparently overestimated.

“Everyone guessed on all the numbers and we were wrong on all of them,” said Bob Collector, the president of the Montecito Association. “You can see we are at capacity almost everywhere in Montecito.”

In March, County traffic engineers, at Collector’s behest, performed a Montecito-wide traffic study to address speculation about a “creep of intensification.” They found that most of the major arteries had average daily traffic counts that were at least at 70% capacity. Some streets were higher than 90%, including portions of East Valley Road (91%) and Sheffield Drive (94%). The traffic figures are calculated as 24-hour averages, meaning that some streets reach far over 100% at certain parts of the day.

What the traffic data mean for Montecito, according to traffic engineers, is a diminished level of road satisfaction among drivers, longer delays and an increased risk of collisions and injuries.

“It’s gone over what the Montecito community is comfortable with,” said Gary Smart, traffic operations supervisor for County Public Works.

Smart attributes the increases to varying factors: commercial development, residential renovations and traffic spillovers from Highway 101, though he does caution, “I wouldn’t blame everything on 101.”

Others wouldn’t either. Though “there are times when the freeway backs up that people get off and get on East Valley Road,” the biggest chunk of traffic is eaten up by work vehicles derived from constructions and renovations, said Bill Palladini, a member of the Montecito Association’s Road and Safety committee.

Approximately 6,000 building permits are currently taken out at County Planning & Development, nearly one and a half per Montecito household. The fulfillment of those permits, Palladini said, will require more trips from construction-related vehicles, in addition to the other maintenance workers – pool cleaners, landscape crews, etc – who drive through Montecito on a daily basis.

“There isn’t any new construction, but what we do here is remodel,” Palladini said.

The increase in traffic has caught the attention of the First District office. Calling the traffic problem a “quagmire” and “one of the top issues, if not the number one issue” facing Montecito, Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he’d devote a lot of his energy to unclogging local byways. “There’s traffic everywhere in the county, but the first district is ground zero,” Carbajal said. “That’s where we have the biggest pain in terms of congestion.”

A Spectrum of Solutions

While local leaders agree that Montecito has traffic problems, few agree completely on the right solution. Gary Smart suggests expanding roads and improving intersections by adding stop signs and even traffic lights. But he said it’s important not to overstate the problems.

“Montecito is still a very small community that has moderate traffic,” he said. “If you go off major streets, you’ve still got small-town roads.”

Meanwhile, State and County politicians are focusing on Highway 101. Decongesting the freeway, they say, helps decongest local roads. For the members of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), one way to reduce gridlock will be the $47-million highway widening initiative that begins construction in early 2008. The first phase will add a lane to each side of the freeway between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road. A roundabout at the western end of Coast Village Road will be built also with the hopes that traffic will flow more smoothly and highway commuters will avoid using Montecito streets as alternative routes.

“Congestion is nothing compared to what we’re going to have five years from now,” said Gregg Hart, public information coordinator for SBCAG. “The widening project is a great example of thinking about tomorrow.”

The highway improvements are funded by Measure D, the half-cent sales tax used for local transportation initiatives that has generated more than $350 million to date. But the widening portion is just one segment of highway expansion. SBCAG, made up of 13 County supervisors and City council members, has approved a $140-million widening as far south as the Ventura county line, in addition to a $126-million commuter rail program. Yet the association won’t have enough money unless voters, on November 7, approve a new version of Measure D, this time a 30-year continuation of the existing tax plus another quarter-cent.

The $1.57-billion tax, condemned as a boondoggle by its opponents, many of them former County office holders, has been supported by 42 of the 47 Santa Barbara supervisors and council members. One of those is Carbajal, who sees Measure D projects as remedies to Montecito’s traffic woes.

But Carbajal admits that his backing of Measure D proposes one fundamental paradox: highway construction for a tax he supports will inflict the heaviest toll on his electorate, the people of east Santa Barbara, Montecito and Summerland.

“There’s going to be pain in reaching the solution,” Carbajal said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to affect my constituents.”

A prevailing worry among critics of the first highway widening segment is that while no lanes will be closed during construction, traffic will be slower than usual and Montecito will bear the burden of added vehicles.

There’s also lingering fear that the permanent closure of the southbound Cabrillo Boulevard onramp will redirect more cars onto Coast Village Road. Traffic engineers have assured the effects will be minimal, if non-existent, but Carbajal calls their reasoning a “counter-intuitive leap of faith.”

“I’m hopeful that their analysis comes to be,” Carbajal said. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first one yelling.”

Montecito organizations have been reluctant to support Measure D. Members of the Coast Village Business Association have been critical of it while the Montecito Association, seeing flaws in some of its traffic predictions and spending considerations, is opting not to take any position.

In the past the Association has supported so-called “near-term” solutions that ask motorists to stagger their driving hours and reduce the number of trips they take. The Association’s Land Use chair, Susan Keller, who calls this approach one of “personal responsibility,” said these measures could help alleviate Montecito’s congestion problems.

Asked whether her solution made unrealistic demands, Keller responded, “if people understand the problem, they’ll go along with it.”