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Freeway Expansion Coverage Focusing on Construction Delays, Still Missing the Magic Question

Three years of construction.  Massive Delays. Circuitous detours. A $277 million price tag.

For a full list of the delays caused by this project, visit ##http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/12/major-surgery-coming-for-key-la-orange-county-freeway-interchange.html##LA_Now##
For a full list of the delays caused by this project, visit ##http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/12/major-surgery-coming-for-key-la-orange-county-freeway-interchange.html##LA_Now##

Unfortunately, arguments about sprawl and damage to the environment haven't proven to be winners when convincing the larger public that massive highway widening projects are hurting, not helping congestion.  However, a shift in how these widening projects are covered, with a sharp focus on the impact the construction will have on traffic congestion in the short-term, provides the argument that opponents of highway widenings need.

"This project will make congestion worse over time."

Just look at recent coverage in the Los Angeles Times of the $227 million project in Orange County known as the West County Connector. That project purports to "create a seamless link between carpool lanes and ease rush-hour bottlenecks on the 405, 22 and 605 freeways."  But the cost of the project is a lot higher for the hapless commuters that presently use this stretch of interstate.  The Bottleneck Blog outlines the seven road closures, spread out over three years, that will be inflicted on drivers.  The headline for the story?  "Big disruptions ahead for key L.A.-Orange County freeway interchange."

Once the disruptive construction phase is finished, how long with the benefits hold out? The theory of induced demand, that is demonstrated daily on L.A. County freeways, is that newly constructed traffic lanes will be filled by new traffic in a couple of years.  There are so many people that don't drive because of congestion, that relieving that congestion induces more driving and leads to new lanes being filled more quickly than we can build them.  When construction will create delay for years, as it will for this project, one really has to question whether the project would be worth it if it were free.

Of course, the Bottleneck Blog is just the online outpost for the Times' transportation coverage, and the regular article is both less critical in title, "Major construction ahead on 405, 22, and 605 highways," and content than the Bottleneck Blog.  Nevertheless, transportation writer Dan Weikel finds time to point out that drivers who use this route are worried.

The overpass is scheduled to be closed for a year starting in late February, requiring motorists on the northbound 405 to take a time-consuming detour through Seal Beach or Los Alamitos in northwest Orange County.

"I'm concerned. It's the best way into Long Beach on the east side," said Michael Tinajero, a construction estimator who regularly drives on the 7th Street bridge to return home from work in Costa Mesa.

So here's the question that needs to be asked and answered for every road widening project that comes up for debate and the answer, or non-answer, needs to become a part of the public discourse.

"Will this project reduce congestion more than its construction creates?"  Or, in the case of the West County Connector, "are we spending $277 million to make traffic worse?"

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