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A long road to go for a wider 101 Freeway

March 03, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

With an infusion of state bond money this week, Ventura County motorists can look forward to expect quicker commutes to Santa Barbara once a major freeway-widening project is completed, officials said Friday.

But first they'll have to get through construction-related backups on the Ventura Freeway between Ventura and Santa Barbara from widening work that could last as long as eight years.

"It's one bite at time," said Gregg Hart, a spokesman for Santa Barbara County Assn. of Governments. "But it will eventually be done."

Starting in spring 2008, the Ventura Freeway will be widened from Milpas Street south to Hot Springs Road, Hart said. The first $47-million phase was funded by Santa Barbara County and is expected to take four years.

As that project winds down in 2011, a second phase -- widening the freeway from Mussel Shoals north to the Casitas Pass offramp -- will begin.

The $152-million project was approved this week by the California Transportation Commission. It is one of dozens of freeway improvement projects being funded from a $19-billion bond measure passed by voters in November.

When complete, the widened portions of the freeway will have three lanes in each direction instead of two. The extra lanes, reserved for carpools, are expected to relieve rush-hour congestion that has grown worse over the years, said Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

With the carpool lanes, transit officials can add more Coastal Express commuter buses to the schedule, she said.

"We're running 14 buses a day between Ventura and Santa Barbara," she said. "We can do many more buses if we can move them through faster."

Funding is not yet available to widen eight miles of freeway between Montecito and Carpinteria. But transit officials expect to eventually widen that segment, creating a carpool corridor stretching from Ventura to Santa Barbara, Hart said.

Commuters greeted news of the project approvals with caution.

Ventura resident Duane Livingston, an attorney in Santa Barbara County's child support division, questioned whether piecemeal widening would be effective. He rides the Coastal Express bus most days but sometimes drives his motorcycle to work.

"If it were a carpool lane the whole way in, the bus would absolutely be the most efficient way in," Livingston said.

Ojai resident Brett Buyan said the improvements would not help him because he uses Highway 150 to the Ventura Freeway. From there, he would be taking the only segment of the freeway that has not been widened, Buyan said.

"The bottleneck starts there and gets worse in Montecito," he said. "It doesn't address the worst bottleneck."

Ventura resident Cyndi Rodriguez, Santa Barbara city clerk, said she had grown used to riding the bus and would probably continue to do so. Ridership on the Coastal Express has more than tripled since it began running in 2001.

"I'll never go back to driving," Rodriguez said. "It costs less to take the bus, and I feel I'm doing my share for the environment."

Many commuters say the problem won't be truly solved until a widened freeway is combined with commuter rail service between the two cities. Rail advocates have been pushing for the service for at least five years, as rising home prices forced many Santa Barbara workers to buy homes in Ventura County.

The sticking point has been the $126-million cost of getting such a service up and running, said Dennis Story, an advocate with CoastalRailNow.org. An attempt in November to raise Santa Barbara County's transit tax failed.

"It's inevitable that we will look to trains as the real solution to these problems," he said. "As soon as you widen the freeway, it fills up."

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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