Jim Boren: California's freeway builders must be in love with gridlock

August 14, 2007 

My idea of a vacation is to head to the coast, park the car for a week and walk to the beach. I suppose it says a lot when I get great pleasure in not worrying about gassing up the car, where to park or whether I'll have to leave someplace early to beat the traffic home.

Our tradition is to spend the first week in August on the Capitola beach near Santa Cruz, Calif. It was a relaxing time, but our paradise is becoming spoiled by the ever-increasing traffic. Driving the Central Coast is not much different than driving through Los Angeles to Disneyland.

This is an old story across the Golden State -- too many cars on freeways never designed to hold that much traffic. Then the growing gridlock is ignored until it's too late for a reasonable fix. But that won't stop the highway brotherhood from tearing up freeways to make them better.

What they won't admit is they can't solve the freeway capacity problem, at least not the way we currently do things in California.

Highway 1 near Santa Cruz is typical. The California Department of Transportation is trying to help by widening stretches of the highway to accommodate more traffic. But the construction is making the traffic problem worse. Now the inadequate freeway is even more jammed because the construction is taking lanes out of service.

This project is an example of what I believe is highway builders' misguided attempts to make things better. They think you can build your way out of gridlock by adding a few more lanes. But what really happens is they cause more problems during the long construction process, and by the time they are finished, the expanded freeways are already full.

On a recent morning, I was having coffee at a beachfront restaurant and saw a story about the Highway 1 project in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Construction is running behind, the story said, and now the widening project won't be done until spring of 2009. What a mess for the next 20 months or so.

As I sipped coffee, I thought this is really about different views of the world. Government officials, construction companies and highway advocates see progress when they rip up lanes to build new ones. The rest of us sitting in our cars see construction zones and gridlock over the next two years.

It would be one thing if the construction would result in an unclogged freeway once the project is completed. But despite promises from the highway lobby, that has never happened.

I just visit Santa Cruz. I'd hate to have to rely on that freeway every day to get to work, home and other destinations. Highway 1 backs up for miles on some of the most beautiful parts of the Golden State.

And you can't even appreciate the scenery because of the construction.

You might as well be in a Starbucks drive-through for all the beauty you'll see.

I don't oppose freeway construction in general -- just the way we do it in California. We wait until the roadways can't handle any more traffic, and then finally decide to fix them. Then they are taken down for two years or more during construction, and they aren't big enough to handle the traffic the day they reopen.

Put me in charge of freeways and this is what I'd do: -- Admit that it will take more than freeways to move California's 38 million people. Embrace mass transit, especially high-speed rail.

It's the highway lobby that thinks mass transit and freeways can't co-exist. The truth is that neither can work without the other.

  • Fast-track freeway construction the way we do when a natural disaster closes a major freeway in the state. These freeways are just as safe and as efficient as those that take years to complete.

  • Design freeways with enough lane capacity to meet motorists' needs well beyond the opening of the freeway. If that can't be done, don't build them.

  • Consider toll roads in congested areas. If you're going to be part of the problem, pay more to drive on those freeways. That added investment can pay for increased lane capacity and might even create capacity by encouraging some motorists to take other routes.

  • Invest in ongoing maintenance of freeways. The way the state has allowed Highway 99 through the heartland of California to deteriorate is disgraceful.

    Freeways aren't going away anytime soon. But this isn't the 1950s -- we need transportation planners who have the vision to move Californians around this big state using 21st century thinking.

    Tearing up freeways for long periods of time to add more lanes is a last-century concept. If we don't change, the Golden State will be one big construction zone.

    Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor. E-mail him at jboren@fresnobee.com.

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