Prop 6 has big implications for the Central Coast

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The commute from Ventura to Santa Barbara can be a miserable drive. Roberto Martinez knows it well. In order to get from his home in Ventura to his job in Goleta, a roughly 30-mile drive, he has to hit the road before 6am to beat the worst of the traffic.

“It usually takes me about an hour and 20 minutes — one way, so it’s about 3 hours round trip,” he said.

If you make this commute every day, as tens of thousands of people do, you know where Martinez gets stuck. It’s the infamous Carpinteria bottleneck, where three lanes of highway turn into two lanes and everything can come to a complete stop. Martinez says it’s hard thinking about all the time he’s losing.

“That’s my time to go to the gym, or do something with the family. It’s horrible.”

Currently, local officials are trying to fix this problem by widening Highway 101 from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara. But a state ballot measure could stall that project indefinitely. If Proposition 6 passes it would repeal SB 1, legislation that increased the California gas tax and in turn created more revenue to fund transportation projects around the state.

Santa Barbara County relies on state or federal funding to start and complete Phase 4, the last and largest phase of the Highway 101 widening project. (SBCAG) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For commuters in Ventura and Santa Barbara, that means the county would lose a $417 Million grant from the state to finish the 101 widening project.

“If Prop 6 passes and the gas tax revenue goes away, this money dries up,” said Gregg Hart, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, which is overseeing the project. “We will lose that $417 Million and there will not be a path financially to provide the money to finish the project.”

Widening the 101 isn’t the only thing at stake locally if Prop 6 passes. The city of Santa Barbara was awarded a $15 Million grant to expand bike lanes — but it’s contingent on the current gas tax staying in place.

But, those who support Prop 6 say the state is already bringing in enough money from previous gas taxes to fund projects like these. It’s just not being used responsibly.

“We don’t believe the reason we have disrepair in our transportation system is because we’re not paying high enough gas taxes,” said Joe Armendariz, who heads up the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association and supports Prop 6. “We believe it’s because the elected officials spend those dollars on their own pet projects, and this has been true for decades.”

To make sure that doesn’t happen, voters passed Prop 69 in June. It requires that revenue generated from the gas tax gets spent on transportation — nothing else.

Traffic on Highway 101 in Carpinteria. (SBCAG) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Armendariz says even if these new funds are being correctly, the nature of this tax isn’t fair.

“Sales taxes, gas taxes included, are notoriously regressive, meaning they impact the lowest income families the most,” he said. “If you drive an SUV and live in Hope Ranch versus you drive a 20-year-old car and live in Guadalupe, I can submit to you that the Guadalupe resident is gonna feel that [tax] a lot more than the person in Hope Ranch.”

But Hart, who opposes Prop 6, says lower income people will lose out in other ways if this tax doesn’t get raised.

“The tax that comes from congestion hits those lower-income workers the hardest as well,” he said. “The folks commuting from Ventura County are people who can’t afford to live in south Santa Barbara and they have to make that commute. They’re stuck in traffic. They’re driving longer distances. This modest investment helps alleviate those things, gets that time back and is a net cost savings.”

Even though Martinez hates his commute, he’s still not sure how he’ll vote in November.

“I have mixed feelings. I want better infrastructure, but I also want to keep more money in my wallet.”

Undecided voters will need to reconcile this dilemma by November 6th.