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Santa Barbara County Leaders OK Start of Work to Relieve U.S. 101 Congestion

October 28, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — After years of argument and inaction about traffic problems here, officials say they finally have a target date for fixing two of the biggest trouble spots. And they also have hired consultants to look at other possible actions to relieve growing congestion.

Starting next spring, work will begin on a $3.1-million widening project in Summerland, one of the more vexing gridlock points on U.S. 101 between Santa Barbara and the Ventura County line. An auxiliary lane and a bikeway are being added on the northbound side near Sheffield Drive.

At the same time, according to the head of the Santa Barbara County Assn. of Governments, public meetings will seek to determine the views of area residents on transportation alternatives between Santa Barbara and Ventura ranging from improved rail transport to ferryboats.

"At this point, we need to keep an open mind on everything," said Jim Kemp, the association's executive director. "I would expect we will be going to the public early next year. We'll do polling, conduct meetings with all kinds of groups."

In addition to the Summerland project, expected to take about a year to complete, transportation officials have committed to a $41-million widening project between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road in Santa Barbara to start in 2006.

Kemp said county planners have retained a consulting firm to handle the overall transportation implementation project for the Santa Barbara-Ventura corridor.

That project, approved by the association on a 12-1 vote Oct. 16, includes a commitment to the eventual widening of U.S. 101 from Santa Barbara to the Ventura County line.

But it also emphasizes that one approach will not solve the overall problem, and encourages planners to consider all possibilities.

"I'm thrilled," said Kemp, whose group includes the county's five supervisors and representatives from eight cities. "I think our agreement is an enormous step forward."

The single vote against the $1.5-million implementation plan came from Buellton Mayor Victoria Pointer, whose primary objection was that the widening project can't be done on the cheap. But other members of the group argued that it was time to take some action rather than continue years of discussions that have blocked actual work.

One strong advocate for starting the planning process now was Carpinteria Mayor Richard Weinberg, who said that traffic problems have worsened over the years while officials have failed to act because they were arguing about whether to widen the freeway.

"We finally got everybody to realize we have to start moving," he said. "What we have to do along most of the 101 is lose the median, and we might have to look at some expansion. But we can do this, even in the tighter spots like Montecito and Summerland."

Naomi Schwartz, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, represents the Montecito area and a large chunk of Santa Barbara, where opposition to freeway expansion has been especially strong in past years.

But she believes residents everywhere have grown more frustrated as traffic problems have increased.

"This is an example of a new era of county organizations taking a stronger role in community planning," she said. "It's not confined to road building. There are dozens of ways to improve things."

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