What Do These Things Have in Common: Smog, Highway Widenings, and Congestion?

Screen_shot_2010_04_28_at_9.50.31_AM.pngRepairs to the I-5 Near Sacramento

Sometimes, the news comes to you from several directions at once, and you have to pull the pieces together to see the bigger picture. Such a thing happened yesterday, when three seemingly unrelated story created the perfect tapestry of cause, symptom and effect.

First, the cause. The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) released a report showing that California is amongst the nation’s trailers when it comes to fixing and maintaining our highway system. The wretched state of our roads and bridges is hardly breaking news. Back in November Streetsblog noted that groups have complained about the failing state of California’s roads since last century. But CALPIRG breaks down the extent of California’s car addicted planning, by the numbers. From a press release:

A startling 13 percent of California’s bridges are deemed to be "structurally deficient" by engineers – 3,228 in total. Measured as a percent of the state’s bridge deck area, only two states are worse by this measure. Yet in recent years California has spent over a half billion federal dollars per year building new or wider highways. In fact, California spends on average of 2.3 times as many federal dollars on new roadway construction than on bridge repair or maintenance. Only four states spend less per square foot on repairing their backlog of structurally-deficient bridges.

"This report calls into question our nation’s transportation priorities," said Erin Steva CALPIRG Transportation Advocate. "It is a waste of scarce resources to continue spending billions on new highways while existing roadways need repair. It’s like adding a guest room on your home when the roof is leaking."

Ok, anyone still think that our Governor is "green?"

Screen_shot_2010_04_28_at_9.50.16_AM.pngIt’s not just me, right? They’re bragging about leading us off a bridge?

Not surprisingly, the state’s desire to spend as much as it can, and more than it should, on highway expansion leads people to believe that the best way to move from place to place is on said freeways. A piece sent to me from the journalism site run by USC Graduate Students Neon Tommy sent a photo essay showing people plodding along on an endless herd of congested highways. We can throw around statistics such as, "the average Angeleno spends 72 hours a year more on the road because of congestion" or "you’re lucky to average ten miles per hour on L.A.’s freeways at rush hour;" but there’s nothing quite like pictures of endless cars stuck in traffic to make the point that too many Angelenos believe they have no choice beyond car commuting to live their lives.

And yesterday, the Los Angeles Times brought the sad news that while things are getting better, the City of Los Angeles is still the nation’s "smoggiest city." While the Times focused on the political and legal battle over the state’s emissions laws, which is a fair point; you get a more complete picture of the problem when you take a look at the picture together:

First the state spends the bulk of its funds on widening and expanding the highway network instead of maintaining the roads we have. Then our highways are flooded by people lured by claims of faster commutes. Poof! Our city is the smoggiest in the country.

  • Allen Rexler

    Great article! This makes it very clear what the State’s priorities are when it comes to transportation. CA cities are among the worst in the country when it comes to smog. How is it we are given half a billion to make highways wider??? It’s actually quite creepy 13% of bridges are considered sketchy by engineers, this needs to be a priority. Its been said ad nauseum, but LA needs a regional transit system!!!

  • Winston

    The term “structurally deficient” does not imply a bridge is poorly maintained. It implies that it doesn’t meet current design standards. For example, a bridge built in 1950 that has been perfectly maintained but which is limited to vehicles under (say) 20 tonnes (because it wasn’t designed for modern super-heavy trucks) would be considered “structurally deficient.” Such bridges are very common in California where very little road mileage has been added in the last 30 years and where codes (especially regarding earthquake safety) have been made much more stringent in the same period. This report doesn’t indicate a lack of maintenance as its authors intend to suggest – rather it implies that the state has chosen to make improvements in places other than bridges.
    A cynical person might also note that since there is federal money available for improving “structurally deficient” bridges, that there may be differences in how aggressive states are in pursuing that money.

  • It is important that these ties between transportation and air quality be made. In the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, Congress tied meeting clean air standards to transportation planning/funding. For too long, Los Angeles has skated by on a farce that our current transportation system is designed and operated to meet federal clean air standards (e.g. for ozone and particulate matter). Our obsession with road-widening and building new roads has really detracted us from quickly developing and initiating strategies to provide more options for transportation. We need real plans to meet these standards, which means changing the way we transport freight and people in the region.

    On the bridge issue, I appreciate Winston providing that clarifying point. We should all be cognizant however that significant federal funding (e.g. taxpayers dollars) is being sought to replace bridges in the harbor area that have been harmed by the massive numbers of trucks rumbling over them each day. For example, the Gerald Desmond Bridge project requires more than $1 billion in funds, and the deterioration of the bridge was due mainly to the movement of freight (e.g. heavy duty trucks traveling on it each day). At some point in the near future, we need to have an honest discussion of whether our region should be prioritizing seeking taxpayer funding for these projects that benefit private industry. I understand that the freight industry provides economic productivity to the region, but shouldn’t the industry support its own infrastructure?

  • Interurbans

    Is what this article only touched on is that Caltrans is blotted bureaucratic agency that is looking for unneeded and unwanted projects to keep itself in business. The 405 Sepulveda Pass is a good example. They are spending close to two billion dollars to “widen” the freeway. By simplify paving the shoulders and there is space and restriping the freeway the same amount of lanes would be provided at only a few million instead of two BILLION dollars. The same two billon dollars could build a full subway from LAX to Van Nuys serving The Airport, Culver City, Play Vista, West Los Angeles, Westwood/UCLA, Studio City, Van Nuys and the Burbank Airport. Isn’t that much more bang for the buck than the 405 freeway widening? When the 5, 22 and 57 freeways were recently widened in Orange County for many billions of dollars, traffic was to the pre widening congestion within months. Widening freeways is not the answer. Alternative rail rapid transit is a much better solution. History has proven this even here in LA.

    Something is very wrong with Caltrans when they can do almost anything they want and eat up so much of the limited transit funding for their bloated unneeded projects. They are already receiving gas tax dollars to maintain the highway and freeway which is being raided sometimes by the state for their budget. Let’s keep transit and highway money for what the money was collected for.

    As for bridges most are doing what they were designed for and do not need replacing to only fit newer requirements. The Gerald Desmond Bridge is good for another 10 to 20 plus years and does not need replacing now. Much of the container traffic on the bridge and local freeways needs to be on Container trains, not the highway. Much of the container traffic is taken by truck to only be reloaded on to a container train at railroad reloading centers in Los Angeles or the Los Angeles area. Putting the containers on trains at the port would save millions of local truck miles and take thousands of trucks and their pollution off our freeways and highways.

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