OC Using Stimulus Funds to Widen the 91

8_3_09_approaching_91_and_241.jpgLast stop before the 91/241 interchange.  Photo: kllm14369/Flickr

"That ain’t Change, it’s more of the same!" was an applause line used frequently during last fall’s presidential campaign by Senator Joe Biden to critique many of the proposed policies of Senator McCain and Governor Palin.  Watching how stimulus funds are spent in California, transportation reformers and Livable Streets advocates could use the same battle cry when critiquing how federal transportation dollars are being spent under President Obama’s watch.

The most recent example is the I-91 widening in Orange County.  The OC Register explains the project before it mindlessly recites Caltrans talking points about the benefits of highway expansion:

The 91 eastbound will be widened by one lane from the 241 toll road to
the 71 in Riverside County, reducing congestion and improving travel
time by 15 minutes, California Department of Transportation officials
say.

A poll we discussed last week by the Public Policy Institute of
California,
illustrates that most Orange County residents prefer their transportation agencies to focus on improving transit over widening highways.  In the Orange and San Diego County region, spending on transit projects out-polled spending on highway projects by a 75% to 22% margin.  This is an especially relevant point since the Orange County Transit Agency is picking up the "rest of the bill," i.e. the millions of dollars for the project that aren’t coming from Washington, D.C.

It’s hardly a surprise to see a newspaper not bother to critique massive highway spending plans.  When given the chance to press Governor Schwarzenegger and Mayor Villaraigosa about highway widenings in our own backyard, the Times brushed off the chance so they could reprint our elected leaders talking points.  Maybe if we print the question that should have been asked of Caltrans and OCTA officials enough, reporters will start to add it to their notebooks.  Here’s the question I’m dieing to hear an answer for:

Since other major road widening projects
in Southern California are causing congestion during their construction, and
because transportation agencies are reporting that additional highway
capacity actually brings more cars to the road, are commuters going to
see any net reduction in commuting time?  Or will the delays caused during construction actually outweigh the short amount of time that there will be congestion relief?

When we start seeing "mainstream" reporters asking questions like that one, we’ll be well on our way to holding politicians accountable for wasteful highway spending.

  • Aye yi yi. As a former OC resident, I can only shake my head at this latest attempt in improving transportation. Widening freeways takes FOREVER–the 91/5 expansion near Buena Park has been going on for as long as I can remember. And while I’m not advocating quick, short term fixes, widening freeways seems like more of a headache than anything else. It may interest those not familiar with the OC area to know that the WIDEST, most drivable stretch of freeway in OC is the 5 around Disneyland.

  • DJB

    I’m very surprised to hear that transit spending was more popular in the OC poll than highway spending, that’s really cool. All of this highway spending in the stimulus just proves that “shovel ready” is a poor substitute for good. Economic stimulus policy shouldn’t work against environmental and health goals like promoting alternatives to the car.

    With regard to your point about uncritical reporting, it reminds me of something I read in Logan and Molotch’s Urban Fortunes (1987). Namely, local papers tend to have an interest in local growth, because more local growth means more readers and more money. More freeways, more sprawl, increased circulation (pun intended).

    Building freeways to reduce traffic is like a hamster running on its wheel.

  • I could think of plenty of other projects that OCTA should’ve focused on rather than this freeway, such as Bravo! bus shelters and (gasp!) ticket machines, Metrolink parking lots, restoring the shuttered Santa Ana Transit Terminal to work with CNG buses, or even capital equipment for real-time bus tracking systems (like that on Long Beach Transit and San Francisco Muni).

  • Erik G.

    CA 91 is not an Interstate. No “I-91”.

    And just watch the asphalt-heads look suprised as cars appear from “nowhere” to fill up any added capacity; a story which has been repeated again and again all over the world.

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