New Caltrans Video Claims Widening 5 Freeway Is Good for Air, Congestion

In this new promotional video, Caltrans District 7 inexplicably proclaims that widening a stretch of the 5 freeway in southeast L.A. County will “reduce congestion” and “improve air quality.” The video, shown at Metro’s board and committee meetings recently, further boasts about “better safety” and how outsized new bridges over the freeway will each “dwarf the original bridge.” It goes on to herald Caltrans’ $1.9 billion project (funded by Metro’s Measure R) as a “21st-century transformation.”

What it really resembles are all of those dreadful 20th-century transformations that gave L.A. County its current congestion and foul air, plus plenty of child asthma, noise, disconnected neighborhoods, obesity, and other problems. These are all accompanied by budget-breaking infrastructure maintenance costs passed along to our children’s generation.

Keep an eye on your transportation tax dollars going down the I-5 at Caltrans website
Keep an eye on your transportation tax dollars going down the I-5 at Caltrans project promo website

The flaws inherent in Caltrans’ outdated thinking are summarized well by UCLA professor Michael Manville, in what he calls “Transportation Economics 101”:

We’ve known for a very long time that simply adding capacity doesn’t reduce traffic congestion. This was first pointed out in very clear language in the the 1960s by an economist named Anthony Downs in what he called the fundamental law of road congestion, which basically said that whenever you add road capacity to the road all you are doing is essentially lowering the price of driving.

The main portion of the price of driving at peak hours is the cost that comes to you in terms of your time. So if you widen the road, it takes less time to drive on it, which means the price goes down, which means more people want to drive. It’s fundamentally self-defeating to try [to] get people to consume less of a good by making it cheaper. That’s exactly what widening a road does.

Apparently Caltrans’ L.A. experts skipped Transportation Economics 101. Perhaps they skipped Induced Travel 101Air Pollution 101, and any lessons learned from expensive widening projects everywhere in the world. Somehow it appears that Caltrans’ leadership really believes that its car-centric Level of Service calculations represent reality, which they never have.

At a state policy level, Caltrans is taking steps to move toward a more holistic approach and away from widening every freeway everywhere. In L.A. County, their multi-billion dollar zombie engineering efforts continue to remain focused on more and more and more freeways lanes. Here, they are still using bogus discredited claims to promote these costly destructive mega-projects. Sad.


  • Dennis_Hindman

    Due to a requirement that a super majority of voters needing to approve a tax increase for transportation for it to go into law, its virtually impossible for a transit only tax proposal to win at the ballot box in this county. Those additional freeway lanes were needed to make it more likely that Measure R would be approved by voters.

  • randyw

    For the cost of this 7 miles of freeway widening, we could have bought more than 100 miles of HSR track at the cost of the last 3 bids.

  • Joe Linton

    or bike share for all of L.A. County and have lots of money left over. Freeways cost so much!!

  • Ray

    Any new highway lanes should be congestion priced, that is the only rational funding mechanism. All extra dollars from the road fees should go to pollution mitigation and subsidizing environmentally friendly transportation.

  • scottmercer

    Why is why it was genius that in the current measure the road repair projects were listed first.

  • calwatch

    More shoulders, longer merge lanes, and standardized ramps will increase safety, though. That is not questioned and is why older freeways like the Pasadena Freeway can be so dangerous.

  • xplosneer

    OMG this. “But the train is so expensive!!!!!!”

  • Derek Hofmann

    A San Diego online newspaper did a nice fact check about whether the tax hike will relieve traffic congestion:

    Is the video false advertising?

  • Joe Linton

    I can’t (and didn’t) say conclusively that this project does not increase safety. It’s my sense that widening projects bring the roadway up to current (excessive) standards, then cars are moving faster and the facility becomes less safe for drivers. If the project increases capacity and thereby induces more driving, then on a broader system-wide level, it is contributing to more driving – hence more fatal crashes, more fatal pollution, more fatal climate change – hence making the region less safe for drivers and non-drivers alike.

  • DD

    @randyw: Do you have citations/links you can point me to on this? I would like to share the hard numbers with a few HSR naysayers in my circle. Thx in advance…

  • Doink

    So Caltrans should start demolishing freeways and we will have less and less driving. Then they can start demolishing arterials and the number of car trips will decrease even further. Eventually we will have zero car trips! Goods trips will also decrease, and reach zero. Anybody know if any people will be left?

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    True – with today’s technology…

    Now lets push for a future where this is not the case.
    Today’s freeway network can very easily be tomorrows mass transit. Let’s remove your two concerns. Working backwards, pollution can be dramatically reduced by electric and fuel cell vehicles. Electric vehicles can further reduce pollution by being charged from renewable energy. Safety, autonomous vehicles could easily reduce vehicle related fatalities to less than 1% of current rates. Turning our freeways into routes for autonomous vehicles in essence turns them into mass transit routes. Drivers are now riders and the freeway networks could function at speeds close to 100 mph. By removing the human element, these freeways become high speed rail without the tracks.

    The I-5 between the 605 and Orange County is a major choke point along the DTLA-San Diego corridor. Yes, it may not reduce travel times today; but in the future of autonomous vehicles it will dramatically decrease travel times, by allowing through traffic free passage at triple-digit speeds.

  • Jimbo

    it would definitely be good for reducing pollution. all those cars idling on the 5 creates a disaster

  • Joe Linton

    Given past examples, I expect that we’ll end up with more lanes of idling cars than before.

  • farazs

    If it does become ‘mass’ transit, then there should be a lot fewer vehicles. So why add the extra capacity which will be unnecessary in the future?

    OTOH, if there won’t be fewer vehicles, then how the hell do you push the same number of vehicle through the same choke-point at triple-digit speeds just be removing the human element.

  • farazs
  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Two words: Reaction time…

    Autonomous vehicles will have a pre-programmed route that is shared with the roadway and other vehicles. Capacity is increased simply because all vehicles together act as a single unit. So instead of one motorist cutting in and out of traffic causing a chain-reaction of delays or an accident, you have thousands of vehicles working together for maximum efficiency. This allows for vehicles to operate at triple-digit speeds with only a few feet between them.

    Capacity is increased by an increase in the speed of the vehicles on the roadway. By widening the I-5 corridor between the 605 and Orange County, you have the same number of lanes from DTLA to Irvine. This allows for through traffic to travel the corridor without slowing down.

  • farazs

    Two words: Utter nonsense.

    This is congestion theory 101. Even at maximum efficiency, the system doesn’t reach triple digit speeds unless the number of cars is an order of magnitude lesser. Road capacity does not increase linearly with speed. Vehicles can not travel at 100mph+ with only few feet between them, because in the real world things occasionally go wrong. The real world needs common sense tolerances and buffers.

  • keenplanner

    Where are the environmental organizations when a stupid project like this is proposed. These driving-inducing expansions are counter to the GHG-reduction targets in SB-375 and AB-32 deserve to be dragged into court as environmental threats.
    And why doesn’t Caltrans, who owns the facility, object to this sort of project? Kudos to LA for the new light rail routes, but for almost constant freeway expansions, wasting taxpyer transportation dollars, and not maximizing the efficiency of existing facilities, WTF are you thinking?

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    I answered that in my post:

    By widening the I-5 corridor between the 605 and Orange County, you have the same number of lanes from DTLA to Irvine. This allows for through traffic to travel the corridor without slowing down.

  • farazs

    That doesn’t address anything useful. Yes, fixed number of vehicles can travel on a fixed road width at a fixed speed. But that speed is inversely proportional to the number of vehicles (a.k.a. demand). There are realistic limits to how wide each road can be made and how useful that widening will be in a global context – if we don’t address it, demand will eventually catch-up to the artificial oversupply.

    All of this is true with and without autonomous vehicles. If you claim that the demand is going to reduce by advent of autonomous vehicles (efficient ride-sharing and what not), then why oversupply? If not, then we’d be in the same pickle we are in right now. So why not put those billions to better use?

  • crazyvag

    If you ever watch the Google Self-driving cars navigating highways and streets around mountain view, you’ll note that they are VERY conservative. This means, slow acceleration, slow speeds and abundance of caution. If you fill I5 with those, you’ll lose lots of capacity.

    Imagine this. What if every driver on I-5 was replaced with an 80 year old grandma? Safe? Yes. Efficient? No.

  • calwatch

    On the other hand, the I-5 project has an approved EIR. The south HOV project (Norwalk Narrows widening) was approved in 2007. Remember EIRs mean that impacts have to be disclosed, and a Statement of Overriding Considerations filed, but does not stop projects from being built.

  • farazs

    DGSL believes that the super-aggressive self-driving technology (read Schumacher on Meth) – is right around the corner. It’s being held back by lack of political will or some weird conspiracy theory. Google is stupid for taking the conservative approach – probably because its full of such dumb people, or maybe because it doesn’t have the financial resources to do it correctly.

  • calwatch

    I think Joe’s point is that the “bottleneck” is really an artificial construct. Those of us who grew up in SoCal in the 90’s remember when I-5 was three lanes in each direction from the 605 all the way down to the 405. If Orange County had not passed Measure M, the Norwalk Narrows would not exist. I-5 in southern Orange County is not in a “bottleneck” condition but still has periodic congestion, except now there are 25% more vehicles spewing greenhouse gases and particles in the air than there were 30 years ago.

  • RichLL

    Depends. Where more lanes are really needed is where a freeway has a stretch with fewer lanes than at either end, i.e. a bottleneck.

    More lanes for the sake of it may be ultimately self-defeating, but if most of I-5 is, say, 10 lanes but there is a stretch of 8 lanes, then surely that is an anomaly that should be addressed

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Yes, I have made posts about the possible benefits and detriments of autonomous vehicles; but now you are exaggerating my other comments.

    “self-driving technology (read Schumacher on Meth in a force-field) – is right around the corner” – I never said that. I have said it is inevitable, since there is a lot of big money behind it. The analogy I used was the Apollo moon landing – eight years from V-2 to moon landing. I do believe the five-year window stated by many is achievable.

    “It’s being held back by lack of political will or some other weird conspiracy theory.” – Half right. I never said there is a political conspiracy holding it back. I do believe that a lack of political will hold back modification to the infrastructure that will benefit all road users (motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians). Only the City of Beverly Hills is looking at updating their infrastructure for use of autonomous vehicles. I will state, for the first time in this forum, that a portion of Measure M funds should be allocated for infrastructure improvements for autonomous vehicles.

    “Google is stupid for taking the conservative approach” – Again, I never said that. I did state that I believe that a networked system approach instead of an individual vehicle approach is the way to go to improve safety and efficiency. I never stated the people of Google are dumb or Google lacks the financial resources to do it correctly.

    Here is the Streetsblog article that farazs is referring to:

    So in your 50-plus diatribe about my opinion only eight words are factual. So if you are going to attack my assumptions, please have the courtesy to quote them properly and supply a link.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    True, now autonomous vehicles are very conservative. Just like Alan Shepard only achieved a sub-orbital flight, but eight years later Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and returned safely. As the systems are tested and improved an increase in speed will happen.

    The State of Washington is already considering adding an Autonomous Vehicle lane to their section of I-5:

  • neroden

    The EIR indeed need only document the environmental disasters to be caused by the project; because NEPA is procedural. (Dunno about CEQA).

    On the other hand, anything which will cause more pollution in an air quality standards non-attainment area is *simply illegal*, because the Clean Air Act is substantive. That’s the attack which should be taken in order to kill this sort of road widening.

  • neroden

    No. There’s actually no evidence that 10-lane freeways carry any more cars per hour than 8-lane freeways, or even than 6-lane freeways.

    The problem is drivers. They weave back and forth between lanes. This eats up capacity as they slow down everyone on the road.

    You get a lot of capacity from a plain old freeway with 2 lanes each way. You get somewhat more from 3 lanes each way… but not 1.5 times as much. Less.

    You get somewhat more from 4 lanes each way, but again, the fourth lane is “worse” than the third lane because of the weaving. You have diminishing returns. It’s actually not clear that a 4th lane is ever of any value.

    More lanes than that is quite definitely a waste.

    I will make a caveat: it can be useful to have a lot of extra “special purpose” lanes for junctions and turns, to smoothly separate traffic going in different directions. (So “basket weaving” entrances and exits to make sure exiting traffic is out before entering traffic enters, that sort of things is good.) I’m talking about “straight through” lanes.

    Carpool lanes (up to 2 each way) and “express lanes” also do work if they’re physically separated from the other lanes, because that prevents the drivers from weaving and allows the capacity to actually be used properly.

  • neroden

    It is true that better shoulders, merge lanes, and ramp designs can increase safety and increase highway throughput.

    What never works is extra general-purpose through lanes. 3 each way is *somewhat* better than 2 each way, but not really enough to justify it. 4 each way is really not significantly better than 3 each way, and more than 4 general-purpose lanes each way, you’re definitely wasting taxpayer money. I explained this above.

  • neroden

    That’s unsafe. In fact, self-driving cars will maintain LONGER spacing between each other than the current reckless irresponsible tailgating human drivers.

  • neroden

    The bottleneck can be removed by reducing the highway to three lanes in each direction along its entire length. This would be a very useful thing to do!

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Again – Reaction time. Say a hazard appears in front of an autonomous vehicle on a freeway. The reaction time for the line of autonomous vehicles is the speed of light. They will all slow down at the same time. They will be easily able to travel at high speeds with minimal spacing.

  • Sine Metu

    Because environmentalists drive cars by and large. I’ve been a Sierra Club member for 22 years now and I’ve personally seen senior leadership driving Land Rovers to meetings on Air Quality in National Parks.

    Cognitive dissonance is not specific to conservatives and I actually have more respect for the coal-rollers who blast by my bicycle than Westwood liberals who blast by me in their SUVs.

    At least the coal-rollers are consistent.

    Oh yeah, some Sierra Club members drive electric cars.

  • RichLL

    Part of the idea of it being legal to pass on either side is to to reduce the amount of lane-changing that drivers need to do. Particularly in southern CA there appears to be little in the way of lane discipline and you can generally choose any lane and it be the fastest.

    More lanes will always increase capacity but there are diminishing returns as the number increases. The largest number of traffic lanes on any freeway is 50, in China, and they still have traffic jams:

  • RichLL

    Leonardo Di Caprio took his private plane to a climate change conference in Europe. Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

  • Sine Metu

    AMEN. Look, I appreciate his speeches as it raises awareness but walk the walk dude.

    Plane exhaust kills more people than plane crashes.

  • PFT Future

    That goes to the bigger issue at hand which is that these projects are included in the RTP which models the entire region and are still based on assumptions that increasing speed improve air quality. I’m not exactly sure if SCAGs newest model properly analyzes induced demand or properly handled latent demand within those calculations.

    So if they are listing in the RTP they already cleared a huge hurtle as that document accounts for all the projects that will have air quality impacts for the region (not all but most large projects). So they will likely never violate the CAA issues in a non-attainment area as the RTP has to confirm and show improvements for the region.

    Also EIR is related to CEQA while EIS is for NEPA. Both are procedural disclosure documents but have different rules for each as one is state (CEQA) and federal (NEPA) but the differences are somewhat minor but do provide different report obligations.

  • calwatch

    There is a part in the FTIP called “transportation control measures” to allegedly reduce air pollution from transportation and thus meet the clean air act. The SR-241 toll road extension to Oso Parkway was called a “transportation control measure” even though this is a greenfield toll road extension, because it might divert some vehicles off of Interstate 5.

    Bizarrely (but apparently in full conformance with the rules), even the SR-241 extension to Trestles is also a “transportation control measure” slated for completion by 2030. When I complained about it in the SCAG RTP, SCAG disclaimed liability by saying they are just compiling what the local agencies give them. Despite this, the Trestles toll road is still in the RTP even after the state and federal governments have rejected the extension on the basis of coastal protection and national security.

  • calwatch

    Actually per the Highway Capacity Manual, while there is a diminished value due to weaving near ramps, in a “basic” freeway section without ramps – a straight through section as you call it, capacity does increase linearly as expected. The issue is weaving near bottlenecks and near ramps. See Chapter 10 and 11 of the HCM 2000.

  • PFT Future

    That’s crazy, its a wonder how and why these projects make it into the RTP; either the constrained or strategic section/whatever they are calling the unconstrained portion.

  • Darren

    I understand how much shorter reaction times, inter-vehicle communication, and more reliable/predictable computer drivers would substantially increase vehicle capacity and enable greater throughput. But I see this as an argument in favor of NOT increasing capacity. Rather, it would seem an argument to hold off on expanding capacity in anticipation of technologies that will more efficiently use existing capacity, obviating the need to expand.

    And going off of what Ray said, the demand currently exceeds the supply because the marginal cost of a freeway trip is zero.

    One approach to consider: price access to the roads to moderate speeds, increasing capacity only when the expansion can be fully funded by congestion fees. That, combined with the efficiency gained through AVs, will likely put off the need for expansion for a substantial amount of time.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    I agree with no more widening of freeways. But I differ in this one case. Even with technology, this section of the I-5 will be a choke point. Having the I-5 five lanes from DTLA to Irvine will allow for proper destination positioning. Through traffic in the HOV and #1 lanes will have minimal merging traffic and can operate at 80+ mph speeds. The #2 lane could be for mid-range travels (DTLA to Disneyland) and may operate at 70 mph. The #3 lane will be for trucks and shorter trips and would operate at 60 mph. The #4 lane would be for very short trips, mixing zones, and trucks.

    Without humans acting on impulses such as “I must get in front of that vehicle” or “I must get in that lane, it appears to be going faster”, the system could be programmed for destination positioning. Having the I-5 five lanes the whole way will facilitate this.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    I also agree that a vehicle’s registration to use the roads should be priced per use. This could eliminate Registration fees and transit sales taxes. Even a usage fee of $0.01 per mile would generate $100.00 per year from most road users. With over 6 million licensed drivers in Los Angeles County, it would generate $600 million for alternative transit options and road upkeep.

  • That’s historically been the rationale for these projects, but that is what has resulted in the existing problems.


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