Carpool lane on 101 should move forward

Thirty years ago, the biggest Central Coast bottleneck on Highway 101 was the section through Santa Barbara, with its notorious traffic lights.

After the cross-town freeway was built in the mid-1980s, the main bottleneck was the four-lane section from Santa Barbara to Goleta. After that section was widened to six lanes and to this day, the biggest bottleneck is the four-lane section from Ventura County through Carpinteria and Montecito to Santa Barbara.

Over the last 20-plus years, plans have been in the works to widen that section to six lanes. As the project evolved, many residents and community groups urged that it not be a simple freeway widening that would just bring more traffic. In response to those concerns, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) determined the additional lanes would be designated for high-occupancy vehicles during the morning and evening rush hours.

The intent was to encourage commuters between Santa Barbara and Ventura to form carpools and ride buses. To be truly effective, HOV lanes need to provide enough time savings to make it worthwhile to spend the extra time needed to pick up one or more riders for carpools or to get to and from bus stops. These lanes, therefore, are only effective if they allow carpools and buses to bypass significant amounts of traffic congestion. The heaviest congestion is in the most northerly stretch from Summerland through Montecito.

Project development and community involvement have been ongoing for several years, and Caltrans is nearing completion of environmental studies. In the last year, Montecito residents have formed a small group called “Common Sense 101,” which has advocated that the new lanes not be designated as HOV lanes in the congested stretch through Montecito.

This group has suggested what they claim is a cheaper and quicker-to-build project that would retain the two left-hand on and off ramps in the area.

There are two big problems with this. First, left-hand ramps are not compatible with HOV lanes as they force single-occupant vehicles to violate the HOV restriction as they enter or leave the freeway. Second, Caltrans is trying to eliminate left-hand ramps throughout the state, as they are generally less safe than right-hand ramps. Caltrans has said it will not approve retaining the left-hand ramps in Montecito.

This situation is leading to a showdown that may come to a head at the Jan. 16 meeting of SBCAG.

Some members of the SBCAG board have expressed support for retaining the left-hand ramps and ending the HOV designation for the new lanes four miles short of Santa Barbara. Because this is the most congested section of 101, this would greatly reduce the effectiveness of the project’s goal of increasing carpooling and bus ridership.

There is even consideration being given to eliminating the HOV designation through Montecito, even if the left-hand ramps are eliminated. Santa Barbara County Action Network and other community groups strongly oppose ending the HOV designation early.

All of this controversy has the potential to either kill the entire project, costing the county millions of dollars controlled by the state, or to delay it, which will also cost millions in increased planning and construction costs.

North County residents might wonder why they should care. Highway 101 is critical to the economy of the entire Central Coast, and removing the biggest remaining bottleneck is a longstanding priority for the entire county and was supported by county voters through Measure A.

SBCAG should keep the project on track and retain the HOV designation.

Looking Forward editorial ran Jan. 10, 2014 in the Santa Maria Times. Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs every Friday, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.