Signal Removal on U.S. 101 Gets Green Light After 34 Years

Times Staff Writer

The project appeared simple enough. There were four traffic lights on U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara. The state wanted them removed. The city wanted them removed. So the state conducted a preliminary study. The year was 1954.

But the city rejected the state's design for an elevated freeway through Santa Barbara. Then the state rejected the city's design for a depressed freeway. And for the next three decades more than a hundred designs were proposed and rejected, more than $3 million was spent by Caltrans on studies, dozens of environmental impact reports were written and 18 separate city councils debated the issue.

Through it all the traffic lights remained a frequent source of Angst for weekend travelers, a daily irritant for residents and a symbol of bureaucratic delay.

Project Will Begin

But after 34 years, the long-awaited project to remove the four traffic lights will begin this week.

"You wonder what could be so complicated about four signal lights. . . . You figure most reasonable men could sit down and solve the problem in a few hours," said Marty Nicholson, a construction engineer for the California Department of Transportation.

In Santa Barbara, however, planning problems are not solved in a matter of hours, weeks or months.

City officials traditionally have worked hard preserving Santa Barbara's Spanish architectural heritage, limiting growth, maintaining the Mediterranean calm of the city. They are accustomed to stalling proposals until their specifications are met. But the freeway project will not be completed until 1991--almost 40 years after it was first discussed. And even for Santa Barbara, four decades is a long time to marshal a project to completion.

'Willing to Wait'

The city, however, will finally get the freeway it wants. And it's not just another anonymous swath of concrete cutting through town. The city contributed $250,000 for arches, ironwork and other flourishes so one of the freeway under-crossings will look like a Spanish Renaissance bridge and be a gateway to the city.

"If this was Ventura, or, for that matter, most any place else, this freeway would have been built long ago," said Joe Callahan, who studied numerous freeway proposals when he served on the City Council in the 1950s. "But this is Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara wants things done a certain way. And if they're not, people are willing to wait until they are."

Although for decades neither the city nor the state could agree on a plan, both shared an overriding goal--the elimination of the traffic lights. The state wanted the lights removed because they represented the only interruption along the 435 miles of U.S. 101 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The city wanted the lights removed because the exhaust fumes from idling cars cause pollution and the accident rate--about 200 a year--is much higher than the average four-lane urban freeway. Also, cross-traffic backs up for blocks as residents wait for the light to briefly flash green. The average wait is four minutes, according to Caltrans, and up to eight minutes on busy weekends. That makes it the longest traffic signal in the state.

'A Bulldozer Approach'

If both the city and state shared the same basic goal, why has the project taken so long?

During the 1960s, Caltrans "took a bulldozer approach" and was not used to negotiating with local government, said Gerald Lordon, director of the Area Planning Council, an association of local cities. And Santa Barbara would not accept "just any freeway design."

Caltrans offered the elevated freeway. The city opposed it. The freeway would block views of the beach, city officials said, divide the city in two, and the elevation would accentuate the freeway's noise and exhaust fumes.

Callahan, who served on the City Council from 1949 to 1958, was one of the few city officials who supported the original proposal.

"Here we are, almost 40 years later, still talking about that damn freeway," said Callahan, 91, laughing. "I hope I live to see the day it's finished."

Callahan, a retired contractor, said he wanted the freeway built in the 1950s because "we needed it and the price was right." The estimate for the original proposal was for $6 million. The project will now cost about $32 million for the 1 1/2-mile freeway construction, which includes bridges, under-crossings and pedestrian walkways.

For every Caltrans proposal, the city has offered a counterproposal. Soon after Santa Barbara rejected the elevated freeway, city officials suggested a depressed freeway, with the roadbed below street surface and cross-streets going over the highway. The state was not receptive because of the greater expense and technical difficulties. So city officials devised a number of other variations on the proposal, none of which were accepted.

Throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, the city and state were at odds. Neither side could agree on a plan. Out of desperation Caltrans even briefly studied a proposal to avoid the city entirely by rerouting U.S. 101 through the mountains to the northeast.

So many proposals had been suggested that the subject became ripe for satire. A local comedy group at the time suggested that the 1 1/2 miles of 101 through Santa Barbara be suspended from Navy blimps.

Eventually, Caltrans took a more conciliatory approach and Santa Barbara became more amenable to compromise. By 1971, the City Council and the state agreed on a ground-level freeway proposal with under-crossings for three main downtown streets. On Nov. 3, of that year, a Times headline announced:

"Freeway Route OK, Ends Long Dispute"

But the next year a new City Council was elected and it had reservations about the project. The council studied a depressed freeway again, but eventually returned to the plan that had been approved. So for the next three years they examined variations of this proposal until, in the mid-1970s, a compromise was reached.

The plan was finally accepted by both the city and the state. The city's aesthetic and environmental concerns were satisfied. The state's budgetary limits were not exceeded.

So why wasn't the freeway built in the mid-1970s? Why wasn't this long-delayed, snake-bitten project finally put to rest?

"Basically, we didn't have the money," said Marty Nicholson of Caltrans.

Funding for new freeway projects dried up during the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, Nicholson said. Highway funds didn't keep pace with inflation and the Administration of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. was reluctant to allocate funds for road construction. When Brown left office in 1983, planning for the freeway commenced at last. And during the last few years the city and state held meetings, refined the design and planned for construction.

Instead of traffic lights and the four-lane highway, an expanded six-lane freeway will be built. Under-crossings for both pedestrians and cars will be constructed at Garden and State streets to connect the waterfront with downtown.

Occasional Lane Closures

All four lanes of the highway will remain open during the day and weekends throughout construction, and Caltrans officials do not anticipate any major traffic problems. After 9 p.m., there occasionally will be lane closures, but one southbound and one northbound lane will be open at all times. Caltrans will begin work on the southbound lanes during the next year, then begin construction on the northbound lanes.

"Somebody should do a Ph.D. thesis on the long and involved history of this freeway," said David Gebhard, chairman of the Freeway Design Committee, an organization of local architectural experts who studied the various proposals. "The community response has been quite unusual. I can't think of any place in the state where people have shown the same determination in fighting the design of something like a freeway."

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