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Highway 101 Widening

1. Introduction.

In 1992 a group of individuals that would eventually establish COAST in 2001 became involved in finding alternatives to a proposal to widen 10 miles of Highway 101 south of Milpas Street.  The group succeeded in defining the project area as a “corridor” to include all modes of transportation along and across 101 rather than within the narrow strip of mainline freeway.  It also succeeded in establishing design guidelines to protect the scenic character of the corridor.

In 2008 Santa Barbara voters renewed the county sales tax for transportation with a plan that includes “seed money” for a new “high-occupancy-vehicle” lane in each direction of Highway 101 from Hot Springs to the Ventura County line.  As federal, state and local funds shrink with the recession, landscaping along the narrow corridor through Montecito -in particular the landscaped median- may be greatly reduced or eliminated altogether in “a freeway design that we can afford”.

2. The original widening project (1992-96).

In January of 1993 Caltrans introduced to the public preliminary plans and environmental documents for the six-lane widening of Highway 101 from Milpas Street to the Ventura county line. The community at large was shocked when photo simulations of the project became available. The geometry, landscape and historic features of the old coastal parkway did not meet the standards of a modern freeway; curves were made straight, lanes widened, shoulders added and, to fit all this in a narrow corridor, the landscape median had to go.

Proposed (1993) – Highway 101 at Olive Mill Road as seen from the overpass

Proposed (1993) – North Jameson Lane near Hixon Road

Proposed (1993) – South Jameson Lane at the Miramar Hotel

Alternative transportation advocates and residents of Montecito and Summerland worked at a feverish pace during 1993 to understand the complexities of the project, inform local government officials of available options, and alert the public of the pending disaster. Thus “Grassroots 101” was formed and Alex Pujo was its first President. Although the widening was included in the Measure D list of projects approved by voters in 1989, the community was clearly unaware of its ramifications. 10,000 people signed a petition opposing the widening. A variety of civic groups quickly endorsed Grassroots 101’s mission to protect the scenic character of the freeway. Alongside this goal emerged a complementary one: to encourage alternative modes of transportation in the South Coast as a way to postpone or eliminate the need for the dreaded widening.

At a crucial meeting in the spring of 1993 the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), under the leadership of 1st County Supervisor Naomi Schwartz, voted to put aside the widening and to commission a study of project alternatives.  The internationally renowned firm of Parsons Brinkerhoff was selected and eventually came to the conclusion that the worst congestion and safety issues could be minimized with a series of “Operational Improvements” to the 4-lane freeway combined with upgrades to service roads along and across the corridor to accommodate alternatives to single occupancy vehicles (SOV).

On a parallel track the City and County of Santa Barbara established committees to work with Caltrans to draft Design Guidelines applicable to all future freeway improvements. These guidelines were adopted and ratified by the California Coastal Commission, thus securing a significant degree of protection for the scenic highway in coastal plain.  Link to Highway 101 Coastal Parkway Design Guidelines.

At the beginning of 1996 the dismissal of the freeway widening was an accomplished fact and the original advocacy group Grassroots 101 began to fade away. Some of its leaders -including Barry Siegel, Lee Moldaver, June and Alex Pujo, Grant House and Ralph Fertig- decided to create a new group (COAST) to advocate for transportation planning from a broader perspective.

3. Operational Improvements (1997-present).

In 1997 SBCAG created a “101 Task Force” to select and recommend projects for funding. Consequently SBCAG re-allocated $50 M originally designated for the first phase of the original widening to the following projects:

  • 101 widening between Milpas and Hot Springs –including pedestrian and bicycle connections between East Beach and Coast Village Road. (Currently under construction).
  • Reconstruction of the Linden Avenue/Casitas Pass interchange and frontage roads. (Currently undergoing design and environmental review).

  • Ortega Hill acceleration lane and Class I bikeway. (Completed in 2006).
  • N. Jameson Lane bridges and Class II bike lanes (“Barry Siegel bikeway). (Completed in 2004).
  • Summerland street frontage improvements. (Completed in 2007).

4. Updates

November 2010: Two separate issues related to the Milpas/Hot Springs improvements are currently debated by the Highway 101 Design Review Team (DRT) that oversees this work:

1) Northbound, current plans call for one auxiliary lane from Hot Springs to Salinas and another auxiliary lane from Salinas to Milpas. Due to the fact that the freeway will soon have 3 lanes along Mussel Shoals and also over the Milpas bridge, the Montecito Association and others approached SBCAG and the City of SB requesting that a third lane be included in the current work bypassing the Salinas exit. Given the narrow right-of-way and the fact that the sound walls are already in place, this new through lane may require the removal of 1200-1800 lineal feet of landscaped median -basically from Salinas up to Milpas.

2) The Hot Springs interchange includes a wide multi-purpose path connecting East Beach with Coast Village Road. The highway overpasses will be modified to accommodate this path. The problem is with the railroad trestle: Union Pacific refuses to grant permission for a tunnel under their bridge; they want SBCAG/Caltrans to build a new bridge for them. As a result, this path may have to be interrupted and routed on the roadway around the abutment of the rail bridge as shown in this preliminary rendering:

See the Letter to the Editor that COAST recently sent to the Montecito Journal here.