The only thing that feels slower than the drive on Highway 101 from Ventura to Santa Barbara at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning is the process of getting the last bits of the four-lane road along the way widened.
But eventually the gridlock breaks and life moves on, and so too does progress on our region’s most vital traffic corridor. On Jan. 16, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments voted to move forward with a Caltrans plan to add commuter lanes and phase out antiquated left-hand off-ramps through Montecito.
The conventional wisdom was that despite improvements on virtually every mile of Highway 101 from the Conejo Grade to the Cuesta Grade, the road would never be widened through Montecito. The wealthy enclave harbored too many preservationists who, while decidedly fringe in the court of public opinion, were highly influential among donation-hungry politicians. To its credit, the powerful Montecito Association did manage to dangle a fig leaf by creating Common Sense 101, an astroturf group it controlled.
Now, the project will move forward, but with an outside contractor overseeing the design rather than Caltrans. Several elected officials cited “trust issues” with Caltrans after the way it treated Common Sense 101. While we think state officials were perhaps a little too officious at times, they can hardly be faulted for dismissing out of hand an unserious proposal to preserve left-hand ramps that are being phased out statewide over safety concerns. But selecting an outside firm to design the project does open the door to further Montecito meddling, which will need to be closely monitored by the public and the media.
There are legitimate concerns about the plan. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider has pointed out that while Ventura County taxpayers did not have to fund Highway 101 improvements there, Santa Barbara County taxpayers are being asked to fund 70 percent of this project. But this is precisely why Santa Barbara County voters overwhelmingly approved Measure A in 2008, which has provided funds for the Union Valley Parkway overpass and Santa Maria River Bridge — projects that have greatly improved the flow of traffic through the county’s largest city.
Pursuing the public interest means doing what’s best for the common good while protecting the individual rights of dissenters. We think that basic standard has been satisfied for Montecito, despite the bumpy ride. Having one’s delicate sensibilities offended is quite a different thing than being denied a fair hearing. We can’t allow a handful of fringe preservationists to hijack the process at the expense of our most vital corridor of commerce.
Moving this project forward is a step in the right direction.