Officials Celebrate Highway Widening. Tough Questions Remain Unasked.

11_3_09_times_mapImage: Times

Anyone that reads Streetsblog knows that one issue that makes this blog different than your run of the mill news source is that we have opinions on how a transportation system should and shouldn’t be built.  Some people charge that this bias taints our writing.  Other times, it’s clear that bias helps us ask questions that traditional journalists don’t ask.  That is especially true when it comes to the dubious value of highway widenings.

For some reason journalists, even ones we enjoy reading because they challenge government officials more often than not, tend to believe government officials when it comes to the alleged "benefits" of widening a highway to relieve congestion.  One might think that in a region that has tried to widen itself out of congestion and failed miserably; that at some point the press would start asking, "Hey, does any of this make sense?"

If the coverage of the nearly $48 million widening of Route-91 from Route-241 to Route-71 in Orange and Riverside Counties is any indication, we haven’t reached that point yet.

Today’s Times features an article by the usually tough Ari Bloomekatz that reads more like a Caltrans press release than a story in the local paper of record.  The article begins by celebrating that some people’s commutes are about to get easier and ends with some ideas for the next great place to widen.  Nowhere in the article is there any mention of "induced demand," "sprawl," or even an analysis of how much traffic and congestion will be created during the construction phase.

Here in the "biased" Livable Streets Blogosphere, we would take the time to point out that for some reason widening Southern California’s freeways hasn’t led to reduced commuting time and a sustainable transportation system.  We might also note that the theory of "induced demand," which is embraced by urban and state DOT’s across the country, posits that new travel lanes will be filled by new traffic within a couple of years of being built.  In other words, the "improved commutes" for those traveling the I-91 won’t be long-lived.  In fact, considering the congestion that will be created by a year of construction, OCTA planners can’t even prove that there will be a "net gain" in congestion reduction.

Just in case you thought I was just picking on Bloomekatz, the Orange County Register had a similarly themed story last week.

  • Jen Petersen

    Damn right, Damien. thanks as always for piping in the missing voices of research-based reason in our region’s sprawlingly insane mobility conceptions and planning.

  • You know, I’ve driven on I-71 in its entirety… in Ohio and Kentucky. Driving the I-91 through Vermont is in my list of things-to-do. I have never heard of I-241, and it doesn’t help that its parent interstate in Wisconsin technically doesn’t exist yet.

    Lesson of today: In California, Interstates, U.S. routes and plain state highways are all “state highways” per state law and are afforded the title of “Route”. Federal agencies (particularly AASHTO) give them the additional title of “I-” or “U.S.” The 91, 71 and 241 Freeways are not Interstates at all and should not be labeled as “I-“91, etc., since it would construe as misrepresentation of an existing highway. Their correct title is “Route” (e.g. “Route 91”). If this was an attempt to instill hyperbole in your piece by characterizing them as would-be Interstates, then you have been taken to task. (Route 71 isn’t even a freeway when it meets the 91 freeway.)

    Having said that, the widening effectively deflates the point of having HOT lanes right in the middle of it.

  • Nothing so sinister Numan, just an east coast transplant used to everything being an interstate because the state’s are so much smaller. Thanks.

  • DJB

    The really audacious thing is that some OCTA planners argue that the widening will actually reduce pollution. This is only true if you consider the extreme short run, as cars drive faster (closer to their most efficient speed) and ignore the long-run implications: more automobile-dependent development, and a return to slow traffic with more lanes. This profligate land consumption (for new suburbs, and their roads and parking) also results in a loss of biodiversity.

    The other big point is that over 80% of this widening is being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is strong evidence that we still see the environment as separate from and subordinate to the economy. I sincerely HOPE we can CHANGE that outlook.

  • The worst thing about this and the 405/605/22 widening is that freeways continue to be improved and widened while the bus network is slated to be cut to pieces.

    People always talk about inequality on these sites, but let me tell you, freeway expansion plus bus service cuts is *really* unequal. I wish the BRU would come down to Orange County and ride the bus sometime. They don’t know how good they have it. LA has rapid buses, bus transitways, subways and light rail. OC bus service is going back to 1975 levels. We are two years late on implementing rapid bus routes. It’s despicable.

  • Erik G.

    Spokker, in order to get to the OC to see what you suggest, (and make it back the same day) they’d have to take the racist and evil Metrolink with its completely lily-white patronage!

  • Metro route 430 goes to Orange County.

  • DJB – great comment.

    I too struggle to see how freeway capacity expansion can be argued to reduce VMT and ghg emissions – it is a argument that I have begun to see lately – definitely troubling and perhaps lacking in logic as I understand it.

  • Actually it is Metro route 460 that serves northern Orange County (Buena Park, Anaheim).

    OCTA express 721 is bi-directional (albeit operates only during weekday rush hour) between downtown L.A. and Fullerton Transit Center

    http://www.octa.net/pdf/pdf/sep2009/route721.pdf

  • Dan Smith

    I have been trying to ask a question but get no responce from Caltrans.Does anyone know if Lapalma is going to go through to greenriver exit ? I guess their not answering questions.If someone knows please respond.

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