As Southern Californians cautiously return to activities suspended by the pandemic, old problems are coming back to life. One of them is a perennial local complaint: miserable traffic.
For decades, Southern California pursued a relentless push to accommodate population growth by building and widening freeways to accommodate more cars and more driving. The result was predictable: more traffic. Trying to fight congestion by building bigger roadways is like trying to fight obesity by buying bigger clothes. Transportation experts call this “induced demand.” After you finish a widening, giving temporary relief, new traffic absorbs the added capacity. Soon you’re back where you started (in the case of the 2014 widening of the 405, you are a billion dollars poorer with nothing to show for it).
Belatedly, Los Angeles County Metro began to invest in a rail transit system. But we kept on widening roads — and wondered why traffic kept getting worse. Today, for the first time since 1850, Los Angeles County’s population is actually shrinking, and many workplaces remain closed, yet congestion is quickly returning to pre-pandemic misery.
So why are we still widening freeways? According to an analysis by journalist Joe Linton, “The Metro FY22 budget proposal includes about $297 million specifically for projects that expand freeways: four projects widening the 5 Freeway, SR57/60 interchange widening, widening the 71, widening SR-138, widening the 710, widening ramps in the South Bay, and more.” He calculates another $63 million going to “Interchange/ramp/road expansion/widenings.”
At a time when Washington is calculating spending in the trillions, $360 million might not sound like a lot. But it’s enough to make bus fare free for everyone. Yes, you read that right. Before the pandemic, Metro was collecting less than $300 million a year in fares from bus passengers.
It’s not just a waste of taxpayer dollars. Widening freeways perpetuates the catastrophic legacy of ripping up established communities. Caltrans crushed neighborhoods of homes and businesses to impose concrete rivers that flow 24 hours a day with deafening noise and poisonous pollution.
Repeating that shameful history, Metro has pushed a project to widen 18 miles of the 710 Freeway though the poorest part of Los Angeles County. Estimated cost? Between $6-11 billion – before cost overruns! The project would demolish hundreds more homes and businesses. It was steaming forward until the federal EPA insisted on additional air quality studies earlier this year.
Toks Omishakin, who took over Caltrans in 2019, notified the California State Transportation Commission in May: “With the air quality issues that this project potentially raises . . . and the relocation issues that this will potentially bring, (I) don’t see how this project can in any way move forward in its format.” Yet rather than kill this wasteful and destructive plan, a week later the Metro Board voted to “suspend” work on the project.
Common sense requires us to rethink business as usual. Eighty years of L.A. County’s failed transportation policies is enough. Fortunately, change may finally be coming. During the debate on the 710 widening project, County Supervisor Hilda Solis introduced a motion to “Immediately cease further work” on the plan. Solis is the incoming chair of the Metro Board. If you think it’s time to stop the squandering of taxpayer dollars and the bulldozing of local homes and businesses — and you want to stop making traffic worse — tell Supervisor Solis it’s time to immediately cease Metro’s futile, wasteful and destructive work on all freeway widenings throughout the county.
Write Rick Cole, a former mayor and city manager, at email@example.com.