Media Praises I-405 Widening Project, Tough Questions Unanswered

Last Friday, local media outlets participated in a rally for the Sepulveda Pass Widening Project, that would widen the I-405 to connect carpool lanes between the I-10 and I-101, with Governor Schwarzenegger, Mayor Villaraigosa and various other union and public officials.  Using an uncritical media to amplify their claims, our elected leadership promoted the largest road widening project to use stimulus funds as a Godsend to not just I-405 commuters, but also the environment, the economy and even alternative transportation.

Doing little more than copying press releases and recording public statements, the LA Times, Daily News, CBS and LA Now promoted the project and either didn’t ask or didn’t receive answers for the questions that would have challenged the local conventional wisdom that America Needs More Highways, even though we can’t maintain the ones we already have.

Instead of uncritically passing along the press release ready estimate that the project will save 7 million travel hours, the press should have asked questions such as:

Since other major road widening projects in the area 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?

Governor, since you’re standing here promoting this project, should we assume that you’re going to guarantee that the state is going to supply $614 million passed by voters in bonds for the project so that it doesn’t lose the $200 million in federal dollars currently allocated?

Mayor, do you see any contradiction between your professed desire to get people out of single occupancy vehicles and your promotion of the largest freeway widening to receive stimulus funds?  After all, this project is going to make it easier for single-occupancy vehicles to commute by removing other cars from the regular traffic lanes.

Any other questions I’m missing?  Feel free to leave them in the comments section.

  • JRider

    Tragic. This project actually has merit. Southern California has dozens of short HOV segments, but these don’t do much good given the difficulty of crossing all the mixed-flow lanes to enter or exit the HOV lanes.

    The I-405, however, is a critical HOV corridor. Once direct connectors are complete at the I-5/CA-14 interchange (under construction) and at the I-5/I-405 interchange (planned), there will be continuous HOV lanes from Palmdale to Laguna Niguel, assuming this bizarre northbound gap in the Sepulveda Pass is filled.

    This I-405 HOV project will provide much more than 10 lane-miles; it will increase the value of all the other HOV lanes in the region.

    I do agree, however, that if Schwarzenegger is going to appear at these press events, he can’t yank state funding a day later. The Prop 1B bonds need to get flowing!

  • Brent

    Have any studies found reductions in traffic or commute times resulting from the West LA 405 widening project?

    How much evidence is there that carpool lanes actually cause people to participate in carpools?


    I find the 405 an interesting case study. From what my uncle tells me, it was originally built in the 1960s to reduce congestion along Sepulveda Blvd, then the primary means to get from West LA to the San Fernando valley. Because it effectively tripled car carrying capacity, it was a wild success.

    The success didn’t last long, however. Within ten years after construction finished, the 405 was nearly as congested as Sepulveda Blvd had been originally. The intervening years haven’t yielded much progress.

    Today, the various widening projects amount to a band-aid at best. If we really want to reduce congestion, we probably would have to do something on a scale with the original 405 project: triple the lanes. That kind of freeway building would be unprecedented to my knowledge, and would mean a roadway some fifteen lanes across in both directions — thirty total lanes!

    Eventually I think we’ll need to see our freeways as prime area for rail construction. We have an effective transportation network here, but it is used inefficiently. If we were to replace the centers of our freeways with rail, we could quite quickly have an extensive transportation system that worked. Commuting from, say, Santa Clarita to Century City on the 405 train would be a snap. You’d take the train to the Santa Monica Blvd. station, and then bicycle/bus the two miles to Century City.

  • In Measure R, there is money to begin a Sepuluveda project. I wish the media had used this opportunity to rally support for a light rail line from LAC to Sylmar.

    In any case, the HOV lane is a bandaid. The freeway won’t be any less clogged.

  • Stats Dude

    Brent asked “How much evidence is there that carpool lanes actually cause people to participate in carpools?”

    Are you familiar with the term “slugging?” In Washington DC, slug lines form at park and rides and major destinations, such as the Pentagon. These are carpoolers who line up. Someone in a car shows up, and takes them to the other end. Drivers get the benefit of a carpool lane, which means less commuting time, and the slugs get a free ride.

    It has really become well organized over the past 30 years, considering it just happened naturally.

    On the days that I have to drive to the office, I usually go to my local bus stop, to see if there is anyone from my bus I know. If so, I offer them a ride to where they would normally be dropped off, and I get a carpool lane, which shaves 15-20 minutes off my drive home. They save about 10 minutes, avoiding all the stops the bus would make.

  • There is one public transit component to the 405 widening project.

    Once the northbound HOV lanes are in place, complementing the existing southbound ones, a proposed Metro Express line running direct from the Orange Line station in Van Nuys to Wilshire/Westwood can be put in place, replacing the much slower (and ironically named, in this case) Metro Rapid 761.

    And, as a piggyback to Stats Dude’s comment, the reason the Rapid is slower is because it has a lot of intermediate stops to make. The proposed Express will not.

  • Brent

    [Stats Dude describes “slugging.”]

    I didn’t know the name, but something similar happens in San Francisco, on the Golden Gate bridge crossing. People line up for rides, and drivers benefit by having access to the carpool lane.

    I haven’t seen the equivalent in SoCal. I’m not even sure how it would work, although I suppose if the carpool lanes offered a clear advantage, we’d figure a way.

    In my experience, the benefit of the lanes isn’t clear. Sometimes they have less traffic, but sometimes they are more congested and move slower. One downside is that they often feel “claustrophobic” — they are on the innermost lane, where close to the driver’s left lies a protective, cement wall. The wall restricts the driver’s options in difficult traffic. I’ve sometimes gotten out of the lane because I felt it was less safe than just driving normally.

  • Slugging works best if it’s a three person carpool, though. This allows for at least one witness in case something goes wrong. Since HOV-2 carpool lanes are worthless on many Southern California freeways anyway, let’s up the carpool level to HOV-3, and put together a “slugging” infrastructure at park and ride lots. A good test might be some of the parking lots along the 10 into Downtown, especially when the HOT lane is built and it congests (as it will), causing the limit to be raised to HOV-4 (like it is in Washington DC).

  • Stats Dude

    I agree with you on the 3 versus 2. My understanding, however, is that the DC project was 4 and they reduced it to 3.

  • I, too, was disgusted by the media’s mindless parroting of Caltrans’ meaningless statistic about travel hours. What is meaningful, is how much relief the individual driver will experience in his or her daily drive–and it won’t be much. Caltrans’ best prediction is five or six minutes over the 10 miles stretch, on the best day. That saving will decline rapidly until, less than 10 years out, the current status quo is restored.

    The media also might have asked, if carpool lanes are cool, why isn’t Caltrans’ proposing to convert existing 405 lanes to carpool lanes?

  • I’m curious: has there been any other effort to establish bus stations along any of L.A. County’s HOV lanes, besides along the 110 Harbor Transitway?

    Most folks say that the Harbor Transitway’s ridership is dismal because no passenger wants to sit in the middle of freeway traffic, but I think the lack of ridership is especially due to the high prices of Metro Express / OCTA express bus service, the lack of marketing, and the confusing timetable (if you’ve seen the Harbor Transitway timetables, you’ll see crazy lists of times for the 400-series buses all crammed together with different destinations).

  • Ellen

    It’s important to remember that no one pitched the 405 HOV Lane Project as a solution to all of the traffic ills in that stretch of the 405. It is, however, part of the solution to the 3 million more people who will reside here over the next 30 years – and that’s from birth rate alone. Given the existing congestion on the 405 freeway, adding some capacity makes sense. Of course the freeway will soon be congested again, so we can only hope that getting around by car becomes a less attractive option, and traveling by subway or light rail becomes feasible with funding from Measure R and other sources.

  • cph

    Re: slugging in LA: I used to take a park-ride bus from Pomona to LA in the late 1980’s. Occasionally, I’d see people drive up to the bus stop and ask if two people would like to take a ride with them. Usually (if the driver didn’t look like a crazed ax murderer or something) he’d get a couple of takers.

    This only happened a few times that I can recall, certainly never anything as organized as in Virginia….

    Harbor Transitway: One other thing causing low ridership is that the stations are generally a pain to get to/from. Long elevator rides (in elevators that are not particularly clean) and also a feeling of lack of real security up there. On the rail lines, at least the Sheriffs patrol once in a while…

    Converting existing lanes to carpool lanes: Not going to happen, after they got burnt with that “Diamond Lane” project on the Santa Monica Freeway back in 1976…


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