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Op-Ed

More freeways won't end L.A.'s traffic woes

Use transportation money to promote alternatives to more highways.

August 08, 2011|By Joel R. Reynolds

There are two things on which most Southern Californians enthusiastically agree: Vin Scully should announce Dodger baseball forever, and something needs to be done about the traffic.

Sadly, there's nothing we can do to make Scully immortal. But we can definitely do something about the traffic.

First, we can stop spending time and scarce transportation funding on planning, designing and permitting obsolete highway projects that will only perpetuate our paralysis. Traffic studies have long established that we can't just pave our way out of congestion. We've tried that approach for 50 years, and gridlock is where it's gotten us.

Second, we need to promote rapid transit, congestion pricing, carpooling, bus-only lanes, transit-oriented development and other 21st century solutions. Our quality of life and our economic future — and those of our children — depend on it.

Consider, for example, two particularly glaring examples of proposed highway projects in Southern California that we can no longer afford to entertain: the extension of the 710 Freeway from its terminus in Alhambra north of Interstate 10 to Interstate 210 in Pasadena; and the Foothill South toll road, in southern Orange and northern San Diego counties. Both epitomize yesterday's approach to traffic management, and both need to be abandoned — definitively.

The 710 extension has been going nowhere for more than five decades, stopped in its tracks by unyielding opposition from municipalities, civic leaders, community groups and environmentalists determined to protect the residential neighborhoods and historic communities in its path. The latest bad idea devised to breathe new life into this white elephant project is to tunnel it, at a projected cost of up to $14 billion. This is an extravagance that would get us essentially nowhere, since transportation experts predict that the road would be congested virtually from the day it opens.

A better alternative for the region is a multipronged approach focusing on transit and other congestion management improvements on existing roads — an effective course of action that could have been implemented years ago with strong community support, creating real jobs and delivering real traffic relief now.

Along the south coast, the Foothill South toll road is a 16-mile, six-lane highway to be funded by tolls that, for the project to pencil out financially, are expected to be so expensive that only wealthy drivers would choose to pay them. Already rejected by the California Coastal Commission and the Bush administration for its destructive effects on coastal resources, this proposed road for the rich would run through the heart of the California state park at San Onofre — a recreational resource that serves 2.5 million visitors each year. According to state parks staff, 60% of the park would be closed. Although the toll road's ostensible purpose is to reduce congestion on Interstate 5, transportation models already predict that the "substantial congestion" condition expected on the I-5 for decades to come would remain, whether or not the toll road is built.

Meanwhile, the myopic Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies — the consolidated local agencies created to build the toll road — refuse even to consider addressing I-5 congestion by widening the existing freeway, a seemingly obvious measure that most stakeholders (except the TCA) believe is a better alternative for the region.

Instead of wasting limited transportation dollars on projects like these that inevitably sabotage mobility by perpetuating traffic congestion, we need to demand strategies that will actually address the problem. There is no better example anywhere in the country than the 30/10 initiative advanced by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who last week became MTA board chairman — and the Move LA coalition of community organizations to leverage federal loans to accelerate funding for 12 key public transit projects in Los Angeles.

The 30/10 plan — now called America Fast Forward — is a groundbreaking initiative that deserves our strong support. If successful, it will create an estimated 160,000 construction jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, decrease harmful air pollution by more than half a million pounds of emissions each year and provide desperately needed transit alternatives for commuters. It includes the so-called Subway to the Sea, Phase 2 of the Exposition light-rail line and the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor.

If there is an immutable truth today it is that, as a society, we no longer have the luxury of wasting public funds on costly projects that won't address the problems we face — projects that persist more for reasons of politics or bureaucratic momentum than effectiveness. We need, as quickly as possible, to devise, design, permit and construct the elements of a transportation system that will create jobs and allow us to get out of our cars, get off the freeways and get wherever it is we have to go. "I can't get there from here" is not an acceptable future for Southern California's residents.

When Vin Scully decides someday to leave the microphone behind, there will be nothing we can do to stop him. But we can move forward to renewed mobility and away from a future of gridlock by rejecting highway projects that will take us nowhere.

Joel R. Reynolds is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles and directs its Southern California program.

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