Another Way to Avoid “Carmaggedon,” Stop Widening Highways

While I was away, one story seemed to dominate the transportation news coverage, the 52 hour closure of a stretch of the I-405 from July 16 to early in the morning of July 18 that is part of the Sepulveda Pass Widening Project.  News casters broadcast breathless reports of impending doom, reporters seemed to produce oracle-like pieces and politicians held press conferences warning constituents to stay far-far away.  Even after hanging out with the web team for Metro last night at the LA Weekly Party, I’m not entirely sure whether or not Metro is teasing with the “Countdown to Closure” ticking clock on their website.

But does it explode at zero?

Sadly, all that hand-wringing did nothing to cause any questioning of whether the entire 405 project is one that makes sense.  The mammoth project is costing billions of dollars and is actually the largest infrastructure project to receive federal ARRA (aka stimulus) funds.  The main purpose of the project is to add a 10-mile HOV lane on the northbound I-405 between the I-10 and US-101 Freeways.  To do that, the project also needs to remove and replace the Skirball Center Dr, Sunset Bl and Mulholland Dr bridges, realign 27 on and off-ramps, widen 13 existing underpasses and structures and construct approximately 18 miles of retaining wall and sound walls.  All this construction has cost commuters hours of lost time to the created congestion.

Usually, when analyzing a capacity enhancement project, Streetsblog would examine whether or not the “induced demand” created by the project would render it moot.  In short, when a highway is widened, it actually creates greater demand to use the new roadway as explained in the graphic below.  If the congestion created by construction is greater than the savings created, than the project is a net negative before you even consider the costs in dollars, public health, and air pollution.

However, when it comes to carpool projects in the Southland, we’ve seen a different dynamic develop.  As Metro and the county “doubles down” and rapidly expands its carpool network, fewer people (both in percentage and actual riders) are carpooling.  If building carpool lanes is done to induce more people to carpool, than why are we seeing fewer people carpool.  Consider this graphic from Metro’s Long Range Plan.

In 1990, when the HOV system looked as it did on the left, 15.5% of commuters carpooled.  The blue lines on the right are the current HOV system, but barely 11% carpool today.  Image: Metro 2009 Long Range Transportation Plan

In 1980, when the HOV system looked as it did on the left, 15% of commuters in Los Angeles County carpooled. The blue lines on the right are the current HOV system, but barely 11% carpool today. 209,685 people in L.A. County commuted via carpool in 2000. Despite population growth and a jump in the number of HOV lanes available, that number dropped to 194,228 in 2009. Image: Metro 2009 Long Range Transportation Plan

In short, there’s no reason to believe that there’s going to be a long-term benefit to commuters from this project.  Even if Metro is correct and more people choose to carpool, history teaches us that every car removed from the mixed-use lanes will be filled with a new car almost immediately.  Yet, there’s almost no media scrutiny of the value of this project.

Bucking the trend was a piece by Hector Tobar in today’s Times that downplays the impact of the coming Carmageddon in Mid-July and notes that the rosy promises made on behalf of the 405 never materialized.

“When it’s finished, driving the Valley and West Los Angeles will be a breeze,” The Times wrote in 1961, as construction crews rushed to complete the freeway. “Eight lanes of virtually straight, minimum-grade roadway will allow motorist to skim over the hills….”

The promise of congestion-free, smooth flowing commutes, has been punctured so many times, it’s impossible to count.  Yet, pols and planners continue to pour resources into widening projects that don’t live up to their promise or costs.  With the coming “Carmageddon” dominating the news, there’s no time like the present to ask whether all this construction and spending is worth it.  Yet too few writers, and no politicians, are leading the discussion.