A new program may provide Santa Barbara motorists with some relief to the headache of freeway congestion, placing tow truck companies on call to clear stranded vehicles out of the path of rush-hour traffic.

State legislators recently approved 35th District Assemblyman Pedro Nava’s proposal to implement the Freeway Service Patrol program in Santa Barbara County, which would have the state pay local tow truck companies to patrol busy freeways, such as Highway 101, during peak traffic hours to help alleviate the traffic jams caused by vehicles that break down. He said these vehicles would be cleared from the freeway and dropped off on a surface street, where the owners could then call a tow truck to take the car to an automobile repair shop.

“If one lane is blocked by a car, the tow truck can quickly remove the car to get traffic moving again,” Nava said. “In Santa Barbara, this service can be of great help, and is effective and cost efficient.”

Nava said the state Legislature’s Subcommittee Five on Information Technology and Transportation accepted his proposal to allocate $2 million to implement the program in Santa Barbara, Placer and San Bernadino Counties at a budget meeting on May 21.

Gregg Hart, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), said the state government will cover 75 percent of the program’s costs, and a $1 vehicle registration fee through the Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies — an agency that provides emergency services to motorists on all of California’s freeways — will pay the remaining expenses. He said the county hopes to implement the program by the end of this year, after the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year has been finalized.

“We might be able to get the program going late this year or early next year,” Hart said. “That depends when the state budget is done. This could be a tough budget year because of fighting between the legislators and governor.”

Nava said he is sponsoring the freeway program in the state Legislature and plans to ensure that it is included in the state’s budget.

“We requested the money in the Assembly budget and we are going to fight to keep it,” Nava said. “I’m following this very closely.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the California Highway Patrol, and the California Dept. of Transportation created the Freeway Service Patrol program 15 years ago in Los Angeles. Since then, according to a press release from Nava’s office, 650,000 motorists have received assistance from the program in 10 regions statewide, including Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties.

Hart said studies on the effectiveness of the program have shown that, for every dollar put into the freeway program, the county and its residents save approximately ten times that amount in expenses — including wasted gasoline and time — caused by stalled vehicles.

SBCAG has recently been working to lessen traffic congestion in the county, having proposed a $700 million project to the board of supervisors that would provide additional alternative transportation and add another lane to Highway 101. Hart said he thinks the Freeway Service Patrol program is one of the best possible solutions to alleviating traffic problems on Santa Barbara’s freeways.

“If you can clean up the incident and get the system flowing again, you save people time and money,” Hart said. “Besides widening the freeway, really it’s the best thing we can do.”