Throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, the city and state were at odds. Neither side could agree on a plan. Out of desperation Caltrans even briefly studied a proposal to avoid the city entirely by rerouting U.S. 101 through the mountains to the northeast.
So many proposals had been suggested that the subject became ripe for satire. A local comedy group at the time suggested that the 1 1/2 miles of 101 through Santa Barbara be suspended from Navy blimps.
Eventually, Caltrans took a more conciliatory approach and Santa Barbara became more amenable to compromise. By 1971, the City Council and the state agreed on a ground-level freeway proposal with under-crossings for three main downtown streets. On Nov. 3, of that year, a Times headline announced:
"Freeway Route OK, Ends Long Dispute"
But the next year a new City Council was elected and it had reservations about the project. The council studied a depressed freeway again, but eventually returned to the plan that had been approved. So for the next three years they examined variations of this proposal until, in the mid-1970s, a compromise was reached.
The plan was finally accepted by both the city and the state. The city's aesthetic and environmental concerns were satisfied. The state's budgetary limits were not exceeded.
So why wasn't the freeway built in the mid-1970s? Why wasn't this long-delayed, snake-bitten project finally put to rest?
"Basically, we didn't have the money," said Marty Nicholson of Caltrans.
Funding for new freeway projects dried up during the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, Nicholson said. Highway funds didn't keep pace with inflation and the Administration of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. was reluctant to allocate funds for road construction. When Brown left office in 1983, planning for the freeway commenced at last. And during the last few years the city and state held meetings, refined the design and planned for construction.
Instead of traffic lights and the four-lane highway, an expanded six-lane freeway will be built. Under-crossings for both pedestrians and cars will be constructed at Garden and State streets to connect the waterfront with downtown.
Occasional Lane Closures
All four lanes of the highway will remain open during the day and weekends throughout construction, and Caltrans officials do not anticipate any major traffic problems. After 9 p.m., there occasionally will be lane closures, but one southbound and one northbound lane will be open at all times. Caltrans will begin work on the southbound lanes during the next year, then begin construction on the northbound lanes.
"Somebody should do a Ph.D. thesis on the long and involved history of this freeway," said David Gebhard, chairman of the Freeway Design Committee, an organization of local architectural experts who studied the various proposals. "The community response has been quite unusual. I can't think of any place in the state where people have shown the same determination in fighting the design of something like a freeway."