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Will More Freeways Bring More Traffic?

Transit: Experts propose bigger, faster highways, while critics say they'll just attract more cars.


The 101 Freeway was loathsome and sluggish, with angry commuters stuck in a daily crawl across the San Fernando Valley.

State transportation officials responded 10 years ago with a $76-million freeway-widening project. It worked--for a while.

But critics compared the fix to letting out a man's tight pants to combat obesity.

Today, the 101 Freeway is again exasperatingly slow, with an average speed of about 30 mph during rush hour in each direction. And transportation officials have kicked off a $4.5-million study to find ways to make one of the nation's busiest freeways move freely again.

The 101 Freeway expansion is a prime example of the thorny dilemma facing California as officials begin to spend the largest transportation budget in state history. The extra money will mean bigger, better roads. But roadway expansions like the 101 project have shown that new freeway capacity is often quickly absorbed. And the gains from billions of tax dollars spent can seem ephemeral, at best.

"We have to recognize the total inefficiency of more and more road building and the total stupidity of paving," said Jan Lundberg, founder of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, a grass-roots advocacy group based in Arcata, Calif.

Lundberg and other environmentalists say it is time California weaned itself from further freeway construction. Adding more lanes will only encourage more driving, they say. In the end, California's longtime practice of building more freeways to ease gridlock will only lead to more of the same.

"Most roads don't stand up to a tough analysis," Lundberg said.

The freeway construction debate is more crucial than ever in California and particularly in Southern California, where 19 million residents will be joined by a projected 7 million more in the next 20 years.

For decades, the state has offered Californians a steady diet of asphalt to meet growing transportation demands. In the last 10 years, the California Department of Transportation has built 368 miles of carpool lanes and 125 miles of general traffic lanes in Los Angeles County alone. Today, the state operates a 15,000-mile freeway system that costs nearly $800 million annually to maintain.

Freeway Statistics Go in Wrong Direction

It is no surprise that Californians have developed an appetite for the open road. According to census figures, a greater percentage of Californians drive alone to work now than a decade ago, from 71.6% in 1990 to 72.4% in 2000. In that same period, the number of miles driven by California motorists has jumped by 18%, according to federal transportation statistics.

State officials have substantially increased spending on buses and rail projects in recent years. But it is clear that Caltrans plans to continue to feed the unsatiable demand for more freeway miles.

By the end of the year, one in every five miles of California highways will be under repair or improvement as part of a $7-billion transportation spending package.

"We are making our roads wider, faster, safer," Gov. Gray Davis said last month as he launched the $160-million widening of Interstate 15 in the Inland Empire. "We're keeping our freeways free. And we're getting California motorists moving again."

Even more transportation money is coming down the road now that voters approved Proposition 42, which is expected to pump $36 billion from the gasoline sales tax into transportation projects over 20 years.

But environmentalists and some transportation experts say further freeway widening plans are folly because of the impact of "induced demand." It is the theory that adding new freeway lanes only encourages more driving, offering only temporary traffic relief.

Under the induced demand theory, motorists who would normally shop close to home might make a longer drive, on a newly widened freeway, to a big mall across town.

"When you reduce the cost to access a place [by cutting the drive time] you encourage traffic to that place," said David Burwell, chief executive of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "That is just straight economics."

But the theory of induced demand is not universally accepted.

"I just don't believe it," said David Hartgen, a professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina. He suggests that the added traffic on new freeway lanes primarily comes from drivers who previously used surface streets or alternate highway routes. New freeway lanes, therefore, ease congestion for an entire region, Hartgen said.

Last year, UC Davis engineers compared 18 freeway segments that were expanded in the 1970s with similar freeway segments that were not improved. The research found that the traffic growth rates for the improved and unimproved freeways were indistinguishable over a 21-year period.

The study concluded that other factors, such as demographic changes, population growth and the economy, play a bigger role in creating freeway gridlock.

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