Wrongheaded High Desert Freeway Named a Top National Boondoggle

The High Desert Freeway would connect Palmdale/Lancaster to Victorville/Apple Valley/Adelanto. Map via Metro
The High Desert Freeway would connect Palmdale/Lancaster to Victorville/Apple Valley/Adelanto. Map via Metro

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A new report out today names southern California’s planned High Desert Freeway as one of the United States’ top nine highway boondoggles. The Highway Boondoggles 5: Big Projects. Bigger Price Tags. Limited Benefits. report was published by CALPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. The report emphasizes that these projects cost multiple billions – to build and maintain – while worsening congestion and harming communities and the environment.

Streetsblog readers may be aware of the High Desert Freeway, a misguided project pushed by road-builders at Metro and Caltrans. It is perhaps most renowned for its ridiculous psychedelic Brad the tortoise EIR cover art.

The $8 billion, 63-mile highway would connect the north L.A. County cities of Palmdale and Lancaster with San Bernardino County cities of Victorville, Apple Valley, and Adelanto. Because it spans two counties, the project is managed by the High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority. The L.A. County portion of the project has Metro Measure M sales tax funding: $170 million available starting now, slated for property acquisition, and $1.8 billion scheduled for 2063-2067 for construction.

The High Desert Freeway has been billed as “L.A. County’s first new freeway in 25 years.” This is because L.A.’s highway builders have instead squandered tens of billions of dollars widening existing highways. These ongoing freeway mega-projects were predicted to solve congestion but have made it worse.

Adding highway miles and lanes are antithetical to California’s climate goals. From CalPIRG’s report:

…for California to truly become a low-carbon state, it must work to reduce driving. Transportation is responsible for 46 percent of state carbon dioxide emissions, and the 151 million metric tons of on-road transportation emissions released in 2016 were more than the total, economy-wide emissions of states like Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. While electric vehicles are an important tool to reduce transportation emissions, electrifying the existing 35 million vehicle fleet will take time, and walking, biking, and transit can cut emissions immediately and play a role in the state’s long-term emissions reduction strategy.

Because the highway builders can read this writing on the wall, they know that the nation’s era of massive highway expansion will have to come to an end. In southern California, from the ports to the San Fernando Valley, freeway expansion projects are getting canceled, with land planned to be re-purposed for community needs.

One alternative High Desert Freeway cross-section - with solar panels and bike path. Image via Metro
One alternative High Desert Freeway cross-section – with solar panels and bike path. Image via Metro
What could go wrong with adding rail in the middle of a massive highway? High Desert Freeway cross-section via Metro
What could go wrong with adding rail in the middle of a massive highway? High Desert Freeway cross-section via Metro

To stave off opposition, High Desert hucksters have smeared lots of lipstick on their pig. The project is not just another “freeway,” but instead a “multi-purpose corridor” replete with bike path, solar panels, and high-speed rail running down the median.

What could possibly go wrong with rail running in a freeway median? Other than, say, trucks crashing onto the rails and hellish noise and pollution, it might be nice.

High Desert Corridor high-speed rail could be an important connection for California’s network.

High Desert Corridor rail could connect Palmdale to Las Vegas and San Diego. Map via Metro
High Desert Corridor rail could connect High-Speed Rail from Palmdale to Las Vegas. Map via Metro

California High-Speed Rail will include a station in Palmdale. Proposed XpressWest high-speed rail would connect Victorville to Las Vegas. The High Desert Corridor is one way to close a key gap – to connect major California population centers to Las Vegas.

While freeway builders tout the rail connection benefits, the CalPIRG report points out some fallacies in claims of

…a benefit of providing “improved access and connectivity to” the proposed XpressWest high-speed rail route, which would be on a route parallel to the proposed highway. Such a rail route could, on its own, be an effective way to promote low-carbon travel. In contrast, the highway would promote sprawling development less amenable to rail travel, and will also compete with, not provide service to, those rail stations.

Why not scrap the highway and just build the rail?

Another High Desert Freeway nod to environmental goals is adding “green energy features” – mostly solar panels in the excessive right-of-way, which is 300-500 feet wide, for eight 12-foot car lanes. Again from the report: “it is unclear how green energy features like solar panels would benefit from the construction of a highway, or why existing highways could not provide similar building opportunities.”

Read the full CALPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group Highway Boondoggles report.

  • Bhavin Shah

    I disagree, this freeway will be an important link for the region. With electric cars set to rise in the near future along with self-driving cars on the horizon, the issues of pollution and potential risk of a car-train collision will be greatly mitigated.

  • relentlesscactus

    “What could possibly go wrong with rail running in a freeway median? Other than, say, trucks crashing onto the rails and hellish noise and pollution, it might be nice.”

    Hypocritical much? You go on to support rail, right after saying rail and highway has the potential for crashes, hellish noise and pollution. What kind of logic is that?

  • les_2

    There are better HSR routes than this, routes that take many more drivers off the highways.

    https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/edit?mid=1JKLKSnKlnqDZ_sE–kD2Ljz0d20rAs0s&ll=35.36622545913481%2C-119.81465209773887&z=7

  • les_2

    The below map offers, when you consider the Riverside area and Fresno-Bakersfield as destination endpoints, 10 significant city-pairs that offer value independent of the other routes. For instance, a Las Vegas to San Diego city-pair would be a money maker on its own merits.

  • QuestionQue

    The important benefits of High-Speed Rail to California are economic. The economic benefits of a rail line to Las Vegas are all in Nevada which is why California is not interested in financing construction. High-Speed Rail can be run at a small operating profit which takes many decades to recover the construction costs which is why only the two oldest lines in Japan and France are estimated to have recovered construction costs.

  • crazyvag

    But the CO2 emissions for a flight to Vegas are all in California, so there’s a big benefit to that state.

  • Ethan

    Does highway noise penetrate train carriages much? If not, that’s a weak argument.

    We’re already seeing lots of new vehicles with lane-keeping technology. By the time any rail actually operates on this route, self-driving trucks will be on the market. Stick to strong arguments, not easily dismissed ones.

  • Joe Linton

    from the article “Why not scrap the highway and just build the rail?”

  • les_2

    California could make a lot of money leasing the lines with an open-access system:
    https://www.railjournal.com/passenger/high-speed/sncf-reports-strong-high-speed-growth/
    https://www.railwaygazette.com/news/news/uk/single-view/view/virgin-trains-open-access-service-to-show-the-rest-of-the-industry-how-it-can-be-done.html
    It would also, as crazyvag pointed out, be a huge CO2 reduction tool.
    And you don’t think anybody from Nevada travels to California, wrong! There are over 2 million metro LV that visit SD, LA and etc.

    Also, what infrastructure project ever pays for itself. One of prop1a tenents is to maintain a non-subsidized system, not pay for construction of HSR.

  • MJoffe

    In the Bay Area, BART trains operate in highway medians at speeds of up to 80mph without problems, so I don’t see why this is an issue. If you oppose a freeway due to concerns over emissions, maybe you could get comfortable with a tollway that offers discounts to electric vehicles.

  • KJ

    There is already a highway connecting the two areas. The only reason for this new right-of-way should be for rail.

  • Michael Escobar

    The argument about highway noise has to do with stations. It’s no fun waiting for the Gold Line train at the station near Pasadena City College in the middle of the 210. Nor is it fun waiting for BART at Dublin, in the 580 median. The other argument against routing rail in highway medians is that the rail route may be sub-optimal for ridership. When the city of Livermore tried to have the BART extension routed along 580 rather than through downtown Livermore, BART responded by postponing the BART extension to Livermore. Routing rail in highway medians has been often described, on this blog and elsewhere, as a symptom of “drive-to urbanism”.

  • Ethan

    Sound walls work and substantially reduce noise intensity. So why doesn’t Dublin BART have them? If it’s because the freeway was widened with little room to spare, this new desert expansion won’t have the same space constraint.

    Livermore BART is dead indefinitely and Valley Link is the replacement.

    Drive to urbanism is the only thing that makes sense in Palmdale and Victorville. They are 95% suburban mazes of single family homes and too much of the year the outside is painfully hot. What is likely to happen is even if companies developing self-driving tech struggle to make it work in San Francisco, it will become good and safe enough to handle the suburbs, and be cheaper than today’s taxis. People will take driverless taxis to and from train stations. Freeway congestion is why they won’t take driverless vehicles the entire trip.

    Here’s a good reason to not build the desert freeway: it will take x years before it becomes congested. Until then, few people will bother using the train when relaxing in a self-driving car is faster.

  • les_2

    If they go with 160 mph trains then speed will be twice that of driving. Also, the energy efficiency factor of a full electric train is significantly higher than that of the equivalent number of electric cars.

  • Ethan

    A 40 minute drive becomes a 20 minute train ride, but then include getting to the train station several minutes early so you don’t miss the train, and the discomfort of transferring at least twice in the blazing heat of summer. That’s not worth it for most people. Do you think many folks living those cities care about the energy efficiency factor? You want the eco-friendly choice, but that’s less convincing to many others.

  • les_2

    “Do you think many folks living those cities care about the energy efficiency factor?” Yes, and the utility companies, Cap&Trade Commission and politicians care even more. Heavy loads are expensive and eventually end up on your power bill.
    It depends where you’re going. Palmdale to Victorville not a big deal. But 1/2 the time plus a Uber ride from a comfortable station is not that bad especially when you want to trip from Victorville to LA or Palmdale to Vegas.

  • aarond

    Then we’ll have self-driving trains too, thereby making the need for any new highways even more moot as railfreight costs drop further. In this specific corridor a new combination ROW (one for XPW passenger, one for freight ala the jointly owned Alameda Corridor) would probably net far more than an 8-lane highway.

    An “improved” 4-lane expressway that integrates better with local communities plus a 3-4 track median would probably work best. But even in this case a LOT of money and resources need to be devoted to individual communities along the route for proper 10′ sidewalks, bike lanes, stations, bus shelters, rest stops, spurs (and necessary crossing gates), etc.

    Ultimately the goal should be something that puts local people first, not build something so that Bay Area techies (such as myself) can quickly cross over to Vegas at 100+ mph.

  • Joe Linton

    If you add 15 minutes for parking (in that blazing summer heat you describe), then the 20-minute train ride becomes competitive again

  • Ming

    The recent suggestions from Brightline/Virgin are that it’s not economic to build high speed rail between Las Vegas and California without government subsidies. It might be economic to build medium speed trains, but that is still to be determined. If California does go begging for federal rail money, they will spend it on SF to LA. They are relying on Nevada to beg for federal money for CA to Las Vegas.

    Also, if California really wanted to quash those CO2 figures, they could just authorize the building of a giant casino resort in LA or something so that people wouldn’t have to go to Vegas at all.

  • Ethan

    What time for parking? It’s the suburbs. Parking at the house, parking at the hotel, parking all over the place. In Los Angeles parking isn’t as free or convenient, but that’s a different equation than Palmdale-Victorville.

  • Ethan

    If you’re correct, there should be little local support in Palmdale and Victorville for the freeway. I suspect most locals in fact want it because they don’t care much about the energy efficiency factor.

  • QuestionQue

    Transportation infrastructure does not pay for itself from fares so the cost needs to benefit the state in other ways. Rail to Las Vegas benefits Nevada greatly and California little. California taxes are much more beneficial spent on other than a High-Speed Rail line to Nevada.

  • les_2

    @QuestionQue “Rail to Las Vegas benefits Nevada greatly and California little”
    And yet California provides plenty of air service to Vegas. Go figure. Californians demand it!

    @Ming what’s the fun in that? Vegas is a world destination that a local casino can not emulate. Good luck trying.

    California subsidizes highway infrastructure to Vegas but not rail, where’s the logic in that.

  • Matt

    I don’t disagree with anything you said, but I would say that waiting at a freeway median station like Dublin isn’t that bad, from a noise perspective. Maybe I just tune it out, but I’d much rather be out there than down in a subway station.

  • Josu

    Oh screw you guys I live here over the pass I can’t wait for this thing to get built so I won’t have to drive over two mountains just to get to LA or drive up 1 and 2 lane roads that are sometime closed or just at a stand still. Environmental concerns??? Yea I can see that with all the lifeless dirt around, even mosquitoes avoid living here. I’m sure there is some type of endangered spider or shit insect hagning around with which to support your argument but us capitalist Californians I wanna see housing projects I wanna see more cities and I want more people and bigger metropolis here I wanna see.jobs gets created for the next 25 years thanks to the freeway and cars will always be a part of America so get off of your high horse with train bullshit cause ppl like the freedom of transporting myself wherever whenever on my schedule. Wanna protect a deaert, go to Joshua tree or some shit.

  • Joe Aband

    You sound like my kind of person. A non commie no bs’er. I’d wish they’d put a monster tunnel through the 2 just so you don’t have to take that monstrously windy road to get out to the high desert.

  • tenatesgigantus

    Victorville and its surrounding areas has vast amounts of empty land that is ripe for development. But, without an alternative to Cajon Pass, it just will not happen. This new freeway makes sense. Stop being so selfish and make room for others to enjoy the dream in Socal..

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