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The flaws inherent in Caltrans’ outdated thinking are summarized well by UCLA professor Michael Manville, in what he calls “Transportation Economics 101”: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



Does anyone outside of Caltrans still think that widening freeways will reduce pollution and minimize congestion? Image: screen capture from Caltrans video

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