Safety concerns may finally put the red light on plans for the renovation of Highway 217.

The renovation, which has vexed locals for a year, is once again a topic of dispute as the Goleta Redevelopment Agency revisits proposals, which include stoplights, a roundabout or a full interchange on the 217.

If the renovation plans are endorsed after analysis by an environmental impact report, construction would begin in 2004, said Harry Nelson, co-chair of the Highway 217 Review Committee and a physics professor at UCSB.

“All we need then,” he said, “is two to four years for construction and funding in the ballpark of $30 to $70 million [depending on the amount of construction planned].”

The funds would come from the federal and state governments. Approximately $20 million is available from State Transportation Improvement Program funds, and more will be sought from the federal government as well as from the state of California.

Highway 217 was originally constructed to facilitate traffic flow between campus and Goleta to prevent accidents and increase safety. Now the Goleta Redevelopment Agency wants to change all that, and follow through on a compromise reached with the local opposition, the Goleta Old Town Project Area Committee (GOTPAC) in the fall of 2001.

Nelson said the Goleta Project Area Committee (GPAC) wants to install traffic-slowing devices like stoplights and roundabouts to encourage Highway 217 travelers to venture into Old Town to shop.

“The original reason for change was to help core of Goleta Old Town by diverting traffic on Hollister from [217]. … [It] turns out not a single solution succeeded in decreasing traffic,” Nelson said. “Another goal that was most important [to advocates is that they] want a whole lot of new commercial development near and in the old drive-in.”

Last fall the parties involved in the plans for redevelopment agreed on a southbound on/off ramp to be installed on the western side of the Highway 217. This summer, GOTPAC changed its mind, rejecting the compromise to consider alternative traffic designs for the Highway 217 face-lift.

With the rejection of the compromise, the Goleta Redevelopment Agency and GPAC are back to the drawing board, proposing various plans to renovate the highway, which is primarily frequented by UCSB students and professors traveling between campus and Goleta. The proposed plans, which include possible off-ramps at Fowler Road and a direct connection to Fairview Avenue, will most likely interfere with the safety of the highway, Nelson said.

He said there would be a problem with any renovations that might slow traffic flow on the Highway 217.

“Back in 1957, the 217 was made a freeway out of concern for student lives. Freeways are the safest roads we’ve got because there are no intersections and no foot and bicycle traffic,” he said. “Proposals that interrupt the 217 traffic will add about 10 injury accidents per year on the 217.”

Plans for the refurbishment of Highway 217 are still in the early stages. A compromise still must be reached by all committees and parties involved, which remains the chief quandary of the matter, and the issue of safety on the Highway 217 vexes everyone involved.

“We are concerned that the county’s plans will constrict the connections of the UCSB campus … and will decrease the safety of travelers, including many students,” UC President Richard C. Atkinson said in a press release.

Nelson said any mechanism of increased highway congestion would lead to a more dangerous Highway 217.

“My own feeling [on renovation] is well, okay, but let’s figure out a way to do it that does not injure people from UCSB,” he said. “Our position is that an unimpaired freeway connection is in the best long-term interest of the university, the South Coast region and the state of California.”