The Road to the Future

A Highway Traffic Forecast for the Next Six Years

A California Transportation Commission decision last week all but assured that Highway 101 construction would occur until at least 2013. The commission approved more than $151 million to widen a six-mile stretch of the freeway from Mussel Shoals in Ventura county to Carpinteria. The money for the addition of a high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lane to both sides of the highway will come from an initial $4.5 billion in state funds made available by Proposition 1B, a measure voted through by California voters in last November’s election.

“This is great news for commuters who have been suffering with traffic congestion on the 101 freeway,” said Jim Kemp, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, or SBCAG. “These funds will help us continue to widen the last remaining four-lane section of the 101 freeway between Goleta and Los Angeles, saving local residents time and money wasted in congestion.”

Other local leaders, however, responded to the state commission’s decision either with ambivalence or downright indignation. The funding does not include about $58 million that had been requested to expand the Santa Maria River bridge, a shortfall that North County politicians interpreted as a message that the South Coast and densely populated areas like Los Angeles are higher priorities. Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno, who represents Santa Maria, called the loss of funds “utterly disgusting” and “really kind of a slap in the face” to North County residents.

Centeno’s colleague, Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who represents the First District, agreed the county didn’t get its fair share. “If I was going to look at it parochially, I’d say we got a lot of money,” said Carbajal, whose district extends from East Santa Barbara to the Ventura county line. “From a county standpoint, I think we could have asked for more.”

The highway widening, scheduled to begin in 2011, will come on the tail end of another 101 construction project that’s designed to begin in 2008 and continue for three years. That project calls for about $50 million of spending to add one lane on both sides of the freeway from Hot Springs Road to Milpas Street, to build a roundabout at the western end of Coast Village Road and to implement other ancillary road revisions.

Highway expansion proponents laud the plan as the first phase in eliminating 101 gridlock. But several Montecito residents and merchants are suspicious of widening, fearful construction will only intensify the congestion it is meant to relieve.

The Montecito Factor

To county politicians, one of the main challenges in securing state funding is convincing Sacramento officials that local municipalities are participating equally in raising money for transportation projects and are putting those dollars to work. Two weeks ago, local leaders celebrated the end of the Ortega Hill project that added an auxiliary lane on the Highway 101 north onramp at Evans Avenue in Summerland and added an adjacent, elevated bike path separated from traffic. The project was paid for by Measure D, a half-cent sales tax that allocates money to repair roads and subsidize regional highway and transit work.

Measure D is also funding the Hot Springs to Milpas highway widening, which includes the closure of the southbound onramp at Cabrillo Boulevard. Road engineers argue the closure is necessary because onramps that enter on the left side of a freeway are dangerous. But some Montecito store owners fear the elimination of the onramp will reroute commuters to Coast Village Road and cause unbearable bumper-to-bumper traffic during peak volume hours, though other merchants say the added traffic could be good for business.

The Coast Village Business Association hasn’t taken an official position on highway expansion, but some members have been public about calling construction spending a boondoggle. Danny Copus, the organization’s president, said county leaders have broken promises about intended uses of transportation dollars and have exaggerated the severity of the so-called traffic crisis.

“It’s not like we live in L.A.,” Copus said. “And, it’s not like we’re ever going to be L.A.”

Barry Siegel, a Montecito Association director who was vice-chair of an SBCAG task force that studied highway expansion, said freeway construction would create a “pretty big impact” by diverting traffic to local roads. The “real problem,” Siegel said, is that decision makers have been approving roadwork without taking account of land development, which generates traffic.

“The least you can do is tie transportation and development decisions together,” he said.

Desperate Measures

As hard as local decision makers say it is to receive transportation money from the state, recent history shows it is equally difficult convincing the county electorate to support local fundraising. In last November’s election, county voters did not re-authorize Measure D, the transportation sales tax that at the end of its 30-year duration would have generated $1.6 billion. More than 54% of voters said ‘Yes’ to the measure, a majority but not enough for the requisite two-thirds approval. Only one voting bloc of the county – the UCSB/Isla Vista area – posted numbers high enough for a necessary approval, with about 81% in support. Montecito and Summerland turned in the South Coast’s lowest approval rating, with less than 55%.

Until the day of the 2006 election, Measure D had been exhibiting signs of imminent success. All but five of the county’s 47 supervisors and city council members had favored the re-authorization while pro-Measure D campaigners had outpaced the tax’s opponents in fundraising by more than $150,000.

But for a measure that had been hailed for transcending inherent cultural differences between North County and the South Coast, the outcome only served to reemphasize the contrast in those two regions’ values – the tax-wary north versus the environmental south. Only 42% of North County voters supported Measure D while areas such as Orcutt showed approval figures as low as 33%.

“When you look at the numbers, you begin to see the cultural differences between North County and the South Coast,” said Gregg Hart, SBCAG’s public information officer and a former Santa Barbara City Councilman.

Transportation officials say Measure D will return for the 2008 election under the pretense that other fundraising options are poor alternatives; gas taxes are seen as “declining sources of revenue” and toll roads are unfeasible given the Central Coast’s geographic constraints. The 2008 run-off will potentially be the last opportunity to renew the measure before its first, 20-year incarnation expires in 2010. The next time around, Hart said the Measure D approach would need to go “back to the basics” with a “balanced plan” that respects differences between the county’s geographic areas. The version of Measure D on last November’s ballot was designed to allocate 41% of future funds to North County, 36% to the South Coast, 14% for shared projects and 9% percent to the 101 widening between Hot Springs Road and Milpas Street.

The next tax measure would follow the same model, but could go further than that by respecting how individual areas spend their money. North County residents, for example, tend to favor spending on road maintenance and repair while high profile South Coast organizations pressed hard last fall to ensure that a large block of Measure D money was reserved for alternative transportation – $42 million for bike paths, $126 million for a commuter rail program and about $260 million for buses.

“I have to say, unequivocally, that the last Measure D approach was a failure,” Kemp said. “It can’t work unless it’s balanced. Everybody has to feel that they’re getting something out of it for it to be successful.”

Another priority for the next election, transportation leaders say, is reconciling the county’s several special interest groups, whom Hart refers to as Measure D’s “stakeholders.” Several organizations endorsed the last tax, from the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization to the Sierra Club to the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation, but the measure failed to gain support from key influential groups, such as the County Taxpayers Association and the Coalition of Agriculture, Labor & Business (COLAB). Local leaders understand Measure D cannot pass unless every stakeholder can agree on a tax model that works.

“We won’t be successful if politicians stand on the dais and decide what we need,” Hart said.

The Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce Board, which speaks for 1,600 members, did not take a position on the last Measure D. Steve Cushman, the organization’s executive director, said the board “didn’t want to send the message that we disagreed with the concept of a sales tax measure,” but it did take issue with the expansion of the levy from the current half-cent to a three-quarter-cent. In addition, Cushman said Measure D has put too much emphasis on fixing problems that can easily be solved by county commuters.

“All of us just have to agree that if we all take ten drives during peak hours, we reduce that number to eight,” he said. “It’s just that simple. You don’t even need to widen the freeway. There has to be the sense that this is a real community issue.”

Joe Armendariz, the executive director of the County Taxpayers Association, said reconciling the county’s stakeholders will require the formation of an “iron triangle” comprised of taxpayers, business leaders and environmental coalitions. One of the mistakes of the last Measure D, he said, was that “it would have made the sales tax one of the ten highest in the state.” A future version, he added, should go back to a half-cent to take into consideration the values of taxpayers while accommodating for the ambitions of environmental groups.

Measure D 2008, Hart said, will likely revert back to a half-cent version because voter polls show approval of the three-quarter-cent format is “really tough.” The half-cent tax would generate about $1 billion in 30 years, instead of $1.6 billion. The shortfall means County politicians will have to spend more time lobbying for state dollars to pay for a backlog of road maintenance needs and growling list of large-scale transportation expenditures, a total wish list that amounts to nearly $3 billion. Transportation officials see promise in this endeavor now that Santa Barbara Assemblyman Pedro Nava is chair of the Assembly Transportation Commission. Still, they said that local source of funding is vital as a bargaining chip for state funding.

But indications so far show Measure D has an uphill travel on the road of approval. Early SBCAG predictions report that the measure needs more than 75% approval from the South Coast and more than 50% from North County, taking into account that about 20% of the electorate will vote against any tax measure.

“When you’re talking about two-thirds voter approval on a tax, you have a huge challenge ahead of you,” Kemp said. “It doesn’t take much to bring it down when a very small percentage of people get to dictate what happens.”