SANTA BARBARA — First it was the traffic lights. To get through Santa Barbara on U.S. Highway 101, you had to stop at the lights and it slowed down all those motorists speeding up and down the coast. It took years of arguing to get rid of them.
"I remember when Gov. Jerry Brown came up in the early '70s and somebody asked him when the lights would go," county Supervisor Naomi Schwartz recalled. "It was one of those Zen replies: 'I think when you have to stop for a light, you have time to think about where you are going.' "
That issue wasn't finally resolved until the early 1990s. Then came the question of whether to widen U.S. 101 from two to three lanes between downtown Santa Barbara and the Ventura County line. That was quickly shot down in 1993.
Now the issue is resurfacing. But with past rancor and defeats in mind, officials at all levels are raising it with extreme caution, as one of several options for meeting local transportation needs.
As housing prices drive thousands of Santa Barbara workers south to buy homes in Ventura County, rush-hour traffic is increasing dramatically. In the last decade, traffic through Montecito has grown by 27%. A single accident can easily tie up motorists for hours.
Because of this, Caltrans has brought up the widening issue again, but only as part of a package that would have to get community support. The Santa Barbara County Assn. of Governments has taken a similar stand.
And last week, at the request of local and state officials, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) brought the federal government into the debate. Capps gained House passage of $600,000 to help pay for a $1.5-million plan aimed at finally determining what to do about the growing traffic mess.
"The daily frustration by traffic gridlock on Highway 101 demands our immediate attention," she said. "You don't build a house without a plan. You don't widen a freeway without one either."
And, she added, you don't do it without consensus.
"The truth is we should have done something long ago, but we didn't," said Capps, who needs Senate and White House approval for her appropriation. "I hope we can begin this implementation plan as soon as possible, because there is clearly rising frustration."
When the question of widening U.S. 101 was first raised a decade ago, it turned into a public relations disaster for Caltrans. Highway officials had run into little opposition on expanding U.S. 101 in the north, and they assumed the same would be true in the south.
But the plan they produced horrified many Santa Barbara County residents, especially those in the wealthy coastal enclaves of Montecito and Santa Barbara.
"It was a concrete swath from Santa Barbara to the Ventura County line," Schwartz said. "There was a lot of ripping trees down and lots of eminent domain. Needless to say, it didn't fly. Somewhere in our archives I still have 3,000 letters against it."
But times change. Schwartz and other politicians all said they had seen some change in attitude about widening the freeway if it could be done with just a little more finesse. But Schwartz, whose district includes Montecito and Summerland, still isn't at the point of taking a public position.
"I have an open mind on widening," she said. "But we have to look at all the options. I know there's more frustration now. So it's a good time to come up with a real plan, and it's great that Capps has gone to bat for us in Washington."
Schwartz and the county's four other supervisors are among the 13 members of the Santa Barbara County Assn. of Governments, which also includes representatives from the county's eight cities.
Jim Kemp, the association's executive director, said the board had not taken any official position on widening U.S. 101, but added that it was clearly inclined to insist that some sort of traffic congestion relief plan be a mandatory component of any study.
"There is increasing support for widening the freeway from people who use it," Kemp said. "But there are other options to be studied too. Adding lanes for high-occupancy vehicles. Reversible lanes that would go one way in the morning, the other way at night. A tow truck service cruising the freeway at rush hour to keep traffic moving as fast as possible. Improved rail and bus service. No one proposal is the whole solution."
Kemp said federal involvement is critical. Early estimates of the cost of a major freeway widening project range from $200 million to $350 million, according to various officials. Most of that traditionally comes from federal and state gas taxes.
County money also would be required for such a massive widening project, officials said. They said a consultant could be hired as early as October. Part of the implementation plan would involve dozens of neighborhood meetings and environmental studies.
"Without the implementation plan to sort of kick-start this whole process, it would normally take 15 years or so to complete something like this," said Colin Jones, a spokesman for Caltrans. "But even with this, realistically, you could be looking at 10 years."
That's not soon enough for some local officials. One of the most outspoken has been Gregory Gandrud, a Carpinteria city councilman. He has argued that there is no need to study something everybody concedes to be a problem and that work on widening the freeway should begin immediately.
But precisely how much has public opinion changed in such communities as Montecito and Summerland, which possess political clout in addition to wealth?
"That's the question of the day," Capps said. "That's the whole point of doing this. We have to find out if the community is behind this, or there's no way we will ever get the funding for it."