Santa Barbara County residents piled into Solvang’s Veterans Memorial Building on Monday night to hear from local officials and voice their concerns at a town hall meeting hosted by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments’ Highway 154 Safety Committee.
Nearly 100 concerned locals came to the meeting to discuss the latest information on State Route 154 traffic safety. Attending the meeting and answering questions were representatives from Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, and local and state officials, including state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, Assemblywoman Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, and county Supervisors Gregg Hart and Joan Hartmann.
“The goal today is to come together to keep discussing this issue. As you’ve heard, this has actually been a conversation for city, county, state, and federal officials for some time,” Ms. Limón said.
Although it is not ranked among the most dangerous highways in the country, according to SBCAG, State Route 154 has a local reputation of danger due to its two lanes and the way it winds through remote stretches of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The most recent published data available shows the average number of vehicles using the route in 2017 ranges from 11,400 in the Los Olivos area to 14,000 vehicles a day at Stagecoach Road, a 5% increase from 2013, according to a SBCAG information sheet. There have been 101 accidents on State Route 154 from 2009 to 2018, according to SBCAG.
Most recently, the route was closed due to the damage to the road from the Painted Cave Fire, and after a head-on collision that left a Solvang woman and two children dead in October. Feedback that local agencies have received from the public indicates that safety is a higher concern than congestion on the 154, according to Michael Becker, director of planning for SBCAG.
At the meeting, local and state officials addressed the history of the route and what has been done to improve it, followed by brief presentations by representatives from state agencies on what is currently being done to enhance safety.
Completed projects include rumble strips added in four areas; reaching out to mapping services to send vehicles, especially trucks, along the Highway 101 route; and installing a roundabout at the intersection of the 154 and State Route 246. An additional roundabout will be installed at the 154, Edison, and Baseline intersection in 2022.
County agencies are a year into a study of what Ms. Hartmann called “the triangle,” the area between the 101, 154, and 246, which is expected to be completed by June. Another public workshop will be held where officials will share their findings and receive input, Mr. Becker said.
“It’s important that this is a study. It’s the first step in a process. It’s how projects become projects; they first come out of studies such as this,” said Mr. Becker.
Future improvements include upgrading curve warning signs and placing a high-friction surface treatment at five locations in 2022.
The stream of speakers thanked the committee for holding a town hall, but all agreed the route is too dangerous and action must be taken sooner rather than later.
Speakers inquired about a number of possible solutions, and while the questions will be used to update SBCAG’s website, officials explained why several are not feasible.
For example, reducing truck traffic, a common concern on the route, would be a legislative and vehicle code issue.
“Right now we have an advisory for trucks not to use 154, but that would have to be done legislatively before we restrict truck traffic,” said Roger Barnes, senior transportation engineer and traffic operations branch chief for Caltrans District 5.
Officials also said installing a barrier between the two lanes would reduce the size of the already narrow road, eliminating opportunities for vehicles to pull off the road in an emergency.
Officials referenced CHP statistics showing that in 52% of the collisions on the 154 in 2018, the at-fault driver was a resident of Santa Barbara County. The majority of CHP arrests are related to DUIs, said James Frost, CHP commander in Buellton.
“It’s on us to take responsibility and to drive more safely. Make sure our neighbors do as well,” said Ms. Jackson.
Speakers pointed out that the statistic meant close to half of the incidents still involved at-fault drivers from outside Santa Barbara County, and requested that warning signs for those unfamiliar with the road be improved.
Some speakers, such as Jim Marino, asked what ways the popular Chumash Casino Resort could contribute to funding 154 projects, as it is located just off the intersection of the 154 and 246 and many people use the hazardous mountain route on their way to and from the casino.
“It seems to me something that’s long overdue. This gaming operation, the tribe, not only do they make millions of dollars from gambling, they still collect $2 million in federal grants every year for various things,” Mr. Marino said.
Ms. Hartmann said that will be considered, and pointed out SBCAG is conducting its study of “the triangle” in partnership with the Chumash.
Ms. Hartmann stressed that the town hall was the beginning of an ongoing dialogue, and said the committee will most likely meet quarterly.
“This is your community, and it’s my hope that we can help in very constructive ways to make it a safer place for all of us, for you to enjoy and to live in and call home,” Ms. Jackson said.