Some Object to Caltrans’ Re-Greening of Freeways


It’s a jungle out there, Los Angeles motorists stuck in freeway jams have noticed. And state transportation planners are doing something about it.

The jungle, not the jams.

Work crews hired by Caltrans are ripping out miles of dense shrubbery and mature trees along freeways in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and replacing them with new plants and saplings.

Caltrans officials say the lush vegetation--some of it up to 50 years old--has become expensive and dangerous to maintain.


But the replacement plants will take years to grow thick enough to once again hide freeway walls and shield neighborhoods from the gaze of motorists--who have plenty of time to stare into backyards and windows as they idle in rush-hour traffic.

The defoliation is angering those who live next to freeways and suddenly find themselves staring back at cars and trucks they were never able to see before.

“It’s noisier and less private now. To be honest with you, they should have left the bushes and trees there,” said John Ohnstead, shouting to be heard over Ventura Freeway traffic beneath the Encino apartment where he has lived for six years.

Last month, a work crew hired by Caltrans removed trees and shrubbery on both sides of the freeway behind Ohnstead’s home near the Louise Avenue overcrossing. Some of the vegetation had been growing there since the freeway’s construction in 1958.

And that’s why it needed to be replaced, said Ed Boll, Caltrans’ landscape architect for Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“We’re going into older landscaped areas done 30, 40, 50 years ago and upgrading them into something that will protect the roadway and be easy to maintain by our forces,” he said.


“As freeways get wider, crews have to prune continuously to keep the landscaping out of traffic lanes. We have 50-year-old irrigation systems that need to be updated and automated instead of operated manually. We need to take out plant material that has outlived its lifecycle.”

Lanes Added to Freeway

In the Encino area, lanes were added to the Ventura Freeway in the 1990s. They squeezed the sides of the roadway, leaving little space for landscape maintenance crews to work safely.

Elsewhere along the freeway system, workers are removing shrubs that appear healthy but cover decades of dead branches. Also being axed are old trees such as eucalyptus--which have been weakened by a parasite called the lerp psyllid.

“Of course it’s quite a shock to residents who weren’t there 40 years ago when everything was planted with one-gallon plants,” Boll says of the public’s reaction to the landscaping.

“They want a visual screen. The loss of that visual screen is what people most object to--they see the freeway and claim it’s noisier. It’s purely psychological; plants don’t stop noise. But the perception is they can see the freeway traffic, so it seems louder.”

Caltrans officials say the wrong type of vegetation was sometimes planted in the 1950s and 1960s when the freeway construction boom was underway. In those days, people were looking to soften freshly minted highways with “something big, green and yesterday,” as one expert put it.

So highway workers planted fast-growing, supposedly short-lived shrubs such as Acacia longifolia alongside freeways, figuring they would screen traffic from nearby neighborhoods until other, more permanent vegetation took hold.

A Haven for Transients

But the acacia thrived, producing a seemingly healthy green canopy over dead interior branches. Although acacia cannot be pruned--it won’t regrow--its dead branches can be stripped away by transients who use the overhead leaves to hide homeless encampments.

Other freeway plants being replaced include Myoporum laetum, a shrub that grows to the size of a tree when heavily watered.

And that freeway staple, the seemingly durable and dense oleander, could end up on the hit list. The reason: Oleander is being attacked by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which is also causing problems for the grape industry.

Other old standbys, ivy and ice plant, remain on the Caltrans list of approved plants. Joining them are Acacia redolens, and Myoporum pacificum, two groundcovers that grow to be 18 inches high and 15 feet in diameter; and Thevetia peruviana and Photina fraseri, screening shrubs that grow about 10 to 12 feet tall.

Flowering trees such as Albizia julibrissin silk trees and Ginkgo biloba, Cassia leptophylla gold medallion trees and sycamore-like Platanus acerifolias London Planetrees are being planted to add color to the sides of freeways.

Once the old growth is ripped out, new irrigation systems are installed before the landscaping is planted, according to Boll, who is a 33-year Caltrans veteran.

Gone will be spurting overhead “impact sprinklers.” In their place will be smaller ground-level sprayers--one for each shrub and tree.

But sprinklers hidden by landscaping will be harder to fix when they break, Boll said. “It’s a change in maintenance philosophy. Instead of driving down the freeway and seeing a Rain Bird that’s not working, they’ll have to drive and look at the plants and recognize signs of stress from not getting any water” because of a faulty sprinkler head.

$1 Million Per Mile

Re-landscaping both sides of a freeway costs about $1 million a mile. Contractors have a year to remove the old material, install the new irrigation pipes and plant the new shrubs and trees. After that, contractors must nurse along the fledgling plants for three years before Caltrans takes over.

About $14 million is expected to be spent annually on Los Angeles-area landscaping over the next few years. An additional $20 million in projects have been identified but not funded. Officials estimate that 100 additional projects will be required before the upgrading is completed, Boll said.

So the replanting will take place slowly. And so will the regrowth.

Along steep sides of the Santa Monica Freeway between downtown Los Angeles and the San Diego Freeway, landscape crews have had to plant gazania flowers as a temporary groundcover to prevent erosion while permanent plants take root. Removal of the old landscaping has exposed sound walls, making them graffiti magnets that must be painted.

What will the Santa Monica Freeway and other replanted roadsides look like when they’re done? Boll said the 8 1/2-year-old Century Freeway is a good example of the new look--with native toyons and other plants from Mediterranean climates and Australia and New Zealand lining the highway.

The plants are thick and look healthy, with low bushes closest to traffic lanes and taller shrubs next to freeway walls. But the vegetation mix seems more drab and uniform than old growth alongside older Los Angeles freeways.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles’ newest freeway may someday have Caltrans’ oldest landscaping.