Santa Barbara County completed construction on a new auxiliary lane off Highway 101 using funds they worry are soon to disappear.

The Ortega Hill Project, located on a half-mile strip of Highway 101 between Summerland and Montecito, offers of a new auxiliary lane to ease transitions on and off of the freeway as well as a bike path adjacent to the lane. While the costs have already been completely covered with money from the Measure D sales tax, county officials worry other such future projects will be jeopardized if the tax is not renewed before expiring in 2010.

According to county officials, the loss of Measure D will create a $40 million hole in the county’s transit budget.

The lane opened with a public ceremony on Wednesday, which allowed commuters to check out their tax dollars at work. The supplemental lane – construction for which began in March 2006 – is aimed to improve both traffic circulation and commuter safety, said Kirsten Ayars, director of the media relations firm that publicized the event.

“The purpose of the event was to publicly open the project and encourage people to use it,” Ayars said. “A lot of people showed up and we received great comments from the community. It’s a great example of a successful Measure D project.”

An amendment to Measure D that would extend its life until 2040 was defeated at the polls last November. The original measure was approved by voters in 1989, and consisted of a half-cent tax on goods sold in Santa Barbara County.

Fred Luna, a transportation engineer for Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, said the public is often not aware of the impact Measure D funds make in the daily life of commuters.

“The Measure D funds are critical in that they help us leverage the funds from the federal and state budget,” Luna said. “It makes these dollars go much further.”

If the Ortega Hill Project is successful, it has the ability to alert voters to the importance of the measure, Luna said.

“We’re hopeful that projects such as the Ortega Hill Project will show the public how vital these projects are,” he said. “Every community relies upon an improved Highway 101.”

While Measure D has generated over $270 million since its approval, Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said it also encourages additional government subsidies. He said the state cannot support the highway system without local funding and fiscal support from the community.

“Most of the federal and state highway programs require local matching,” Firestone said. “I think it’s appropriate for there to be a publicity event so people know where the funds go… Locals have so much discretion. If Bakersfield is able to raise some local funding and we aren’t, the government funding will go to Bakersfield.”

Aside from the functional purpose of the auxiliary lane, Ayars said the project drew considerable enthusiasm from the local crowd. Improved landscaping and stone signs will allow the ramp to blend in with the rest of the community.

“It doesn’t look like your typical freeway project,” she said. “It’s a nice enhancement.”

Luna also said there was a positive community response at the opening of the ramp.

“We had a wide variety of people who rode their bikes, individuals who were anxious to see how the auxiliary lane would merge onto the highway,” Luna said. “We had one gentleman who couldn’t get enough, he went around the auxiliary ramp two or three times.”