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Transportation ‘boondoggles’ cost billions, study says

These vanquished “boondoggles” appear in the “victory” column:

The death of the proposed extension of the 241 “toll road to nowhere” through San Clemente, which could have cost billions.

The cancellation of a $6 billion plan to expand the 710 freeway between Long Beach and East Los Angeles, which rattled around for more than 20 years.

Abandonment of a plan to drill twin tunnels to link I-210 and I-710 — which could have exceeded $5 billion — in an attempt to reduce San Gabriel Valley transportation woes; and the demise of the “High Desert Freeway,” an $8 billion, 63-mile project that aimed to connect L.A. County’s Palmdale and Lancaster with San Bernardino County’s Victorville, Apple Valley and Adelanto.

But you can’t win ’em all, even if you’re the rabble-rousing California Public Interest Research Group, intent on steering California away from its automobile addiction: The I-405 Expansion project from the 73 toll road to I-605 is well under way, a $1.9 billion endeavor adding express toll lanes to 16 miles of one of America’s most congested highways.

All these projects have appeared in PIRG’s “Highway Boondoggles: Wasting infrastructure funding on damaging and unnecessary road projects” studies over the years, now in its eighth incarnation. The PIRG activists take some credit for halting what they call wasteful projects, yearn to ensure that the new $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment is not squandered on car-centric projects and lament the 405 expansion they weren’t able to stop.

The 405 expansion “is based on estimates of dramatic traffic increases that are both unrealistic, and that far exceed real use trends,” PIRG says. “Expanding the highway, however, could very well bring many of those who currently avoid the 405 due to congestion back to the highway – generating new traffic that causes congestion to return.”

The Orange County Transportation Authority is unapologetic.

“Orange County voters agreed to tax themselves one-half cent in 1990 and again in 2006, entrusting OCTA to deliver a balanced and sustainable transportation system and we are delivering on those promises, which have resulted in billions of dollars of local street maintenance and improvement projects, as well as transit programs, freeway improvements, water quality, wildlife and habitat protection initiatives,” said spokesman Joel Zlotnik by email.

“The 405 project — part of the local sales tax measure approved by Orange County voters in 2006 — has a number of recommended elements discussed, including priced managed lanes with carpool discounts to incentivize ride-sharing and transit use, reconstructing local streets crossing the freeway with widened sidewalks, new bike lanes and lighting to improve safety and encourage more walking and biking.”

The project, set to finish next year, is a partnership with Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration and will help reduce congestion on one of the most heavily traveled stretches of highway in the nation, Zlotnik said. It remains on PIRG’s boondoggle list, but wasn’t the focus of this latest report.

No more highways?

PIRG’s thesis can be a bit hard to swallow in car-dependent Southern California.

Highway expansion, it argues, harms our health and the environment, doesn’t solve congestion, and creates a lasting financial burden.

“Since 1980, the U.S. has added nearly 870,000 lane-miles of highway – paving more than 1,648 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island – and yet, prior to the COVID19 pandemic, congestion on America’s roads was worse than it was in the early 1980s,” its report said.

In 2016, the last year for which detailed data is available, federal, state and local governments spent $27.6 billion expanding the highway system – including new roads and bridges and widening  – “sucking money away from road repair, transit and otherlocal needs.”

These projects translate into more driving, which contributes to climate change, creates pollution that triggers health problems, and can cause “irreparable harm to communities, forcing the relocation of homes and businesses, widening ‘dead zones’ alongside highways, severing street connections for pedestrians and cars, reducing cities’ base of taxable property and overall community value, and stripping communities of their economic vitality,” it argues.

Across the country, 173,000 miles of road are in “poor” condition, more than a third of bridges need major repairs or replacement, and 7% of bridges are “structurally deficient.” Building new roads diverts billions of taxpayer dollars from repairing existing ones, PIRG argues.

Construction on the OC streetcar, connecting Santa Ana and Garden Grove, will continue to see progress in 2022 before the vehicles themselves get delivered to Orange County in late 2022 or early 2023. The vehicles are currently under construction in northern California, and residents could start see them being tested here in 2023, OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said. (Courtesy of OCTA.)
OC streetcar vehicles, which will connect Santa Ana and Garden Grove, under construction in northern California. (Courtesy OCTA.)

Big chance

So here we are, with a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal inked in November, promising a “near-unimaginable” opportunity to invest in America’s transportation system.

These federal dollars could be spent fixing aging roads, making streets safer, and making it easier to travel on public transit, by bike or on foot, PIRG said — or they could be spent building and expanding highways.

PIRG urges the powers-that-be to embrace “fix-it-first” policies that reorient transportation funding away from highway expansion and toward repair; invest in transportation solutions that reduce dependence on automobile travel; and use the latest transportation data to do full cost-benefit comparisons and weigh the socioeconomic impacts of projects.

All fine ideas. But in a place like Orange County, which is largely a product of suburban car culture, it can be a bit of a stretch. The drama attached to the OC Streetcar project, which has essentially “shut down” downtown Santa Ana, is a case in point.

Once completed, the 4.15 mile-long OC Streetcar route will run from the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, through Downtown Santa Ana and the Civic Center, to Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove. The $509 million project is expected to open in 2024.



Toni Nelson, founder of Capo Cares, has never shied away from calling out a boondoggle where she sees one. PIRG, and local policymakers, may want to consider the projects on her latest list:

The proposed $50 million Serra Siding, sold as an infrastructure investment needed due to high demand for passenger rail, despite the fact that both Amtrak and Metrolink have been operating at a fraction of capacity; a plan by BNSF to spend billions to send more freight trains up a seriously eroding coast; and the toll roads agency itself, whose bad forecasting yielded unexpectedly poor revenue projections, and inability to meet debt obligations required refinancing its debt again and again.

“As far as public transit goes, I think we need to be looking at non-polluting, efficient solutions,” she said by email. “Trains are public transportation but they pollute horribly and don’t solve the ‘last mile’ problem. And only a perfect idiot would spend billions to expand rail on an eroding coast.

“We can do better but it will require a large paradigm shift. Transportation futurists talk about a day when on-demand electric ubers will constantly circulate and no one will need a private car.  How’s that for convenient and efficient? A fleet of constantly moving shared vehicles. And we can all reclaim our garages and expand our living spaces!”

What do you think?

Source: Orange County Register

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