SANTA BARBARA — For four decades, the traffic lights along U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara have been California's ultimate stop signals.
When the lights were red, they were the only thing between motorists and 435 miles of free-and-open ride up and down the venerable highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But when they were green, they seemed to stay green forever, and they divided Santa Barbara in two.
Santa Barbara has learned to live with it. Waiting up to eight minutes to enter the freeway or to cross the intersection between downtown and the beach, Mayor Sheila Lodge spends the interludes poring through her mail.
Others, during a typical 20-minute morning rush-hour period last week, sipped coffee, applied makeup, squeezed eyedrops, read the sports pages, studied maps, shuffled through a stack of baseball cards, yawned, or in the case of bartender Robert Knapp, turned off his engine, dismounted from his motorcycle, and stretched.
"I hate people who, knowing they'll be sitting here five minutes, leave their cars running," Knapp said. "Especially, because I have to smell it."
Yet, as they say in the fast lane, all things must pass. And on Wednesday, the signal at the intersection of Anacapa Street--the last remaining traffic light on U.S. 101 between Los Angeles and San Francisco--will finally be removed.
"These lights are almost an anachronism of the '40s and '50s--they kind of remind me of Route 66 with the motels shaped like wigwams, part of a more simple life," said Mike Mortensen, a California Department of Transportation engineer.
The removal of the lights is the key element of a $58-million downtown Santa Barbara underpass and freeway system which, after almost 40 years of bickering and dawdling, is scheduled to be completed next year.
At that point, motorists will have a clear path to whiz up and down the Pacific Coast, presumably eliminating many of those all-too-familiar half an hour weekend highway traffic jams now synonymous with Santa Barbara. The change will also mark the passing of an era, particularly in a city well defined by its laid-back pace.
"I think of it like the Golden Spike," said Mortensen, hearkening back to the 1869 completion of the intercontinental railroad system. "In a way, it's a closing of the frontier."
"In the '70s, (then-Gov.) Jerry Brown said these lights give you a chance to stop and contemplate. I guess we just don't have time for contemplation any more."
On Wednesday, at a gala "Last Light Ceremony," city and state officials will gather at U.S. 101 and Anacapa to dedicate plaques, make speeches and listen to a four-piece band perform a specially commissioned song that begins:
"Ever since the '60s it's been goin' on,
Gridlock from Goleta to the Rincon . "
In the past, many of these same city and state officials have feuded vociferously over plans to eliminate the lights--the city resisting an elevated freeway and the state rejecting a depressed freeway.
The final design includes a major downtown on-off ramp, and--of more importance to the city's aesthetic sensibility--a distinctive Spanish Renaissance underpass at State Street to serve as an unofficial gateway to Santa Barbara.
With the dismantling of the Anacapa light (three others until recently graced the U.S. 101 intersections at Santa Barbara, Chapala and State streets), no downtown access to the freeway will be available until the ramp at Garden Street is completed in a few weeks. That will make for a couple of miles of no-entrance, no-exit freeway in the heart of downtown. Yet the darkest hour, city officials maintain, is just before the dawn.
"We're delighted to have the signals gone," said Lodge, who has been considering dressing up as a pallbearer for Wednesday's festivities. "Basically, it will all be positive. Stopping and reflecting is not such a bad idea--but I don't think the highway is the best place to do it."
During the five years of construction, downtown and beachside businesses, restaurants in particular, have suffered from congestion and limited access. Some closed and others, such as Castagnola Brothers' Fish Market and Galley, say they have barely avoided going under.
"Hanging on is the real key," said the restaurant's owner, Larry Pender. "Once the freeway is completed, it will be a different story."
Chamber of Commerce Director Steve Cushman predicts that some travelers "who used to stop at the lights, pull off and go to lunch, will now fly right through."
But he adds that an increasing number of Southland motorists are likely to drive up the coast on weekends if traffic thins out. "We'll get our share stopping here," he said. "So for us, it's a push."
Caltrans officials say the project will reduce accidents caused by motorists who frantically speed up when the light turns yellow. The elimination of the cross-town lights--which ran on a four-minute cycle--will also improve the air quality as well as emergency police and fire service to the heretofore bifurcated beach.
But more important, motorists say, is that the changes will enhance their peace of mind.
"I'm going to be happy about it, man," said Steve Ford, 46, a carpenter from Carpinteria, as he sipped a bottle of apple juice at the Anacapa-101 intersection. "They should have done it 25 years ago.
"You do what you can here, listen to music," Ford began explaining to a reporter, when, all of a sudden, the light ahead turned to green.
In mid-thought, Ford hit the accelerator. "See you, have a good day" were his last words, trailing away as he lurched forward, turned left and sped onto the freeway.