No love for tunnels

DECADES AGO, a gadfly candidate for Los Angeles mayor promoted a quick fix for smog: Drill tunnels through the San Gabriel Mountains and use giant fans to blow the dirty air out the other side. Amazingly, a similar scheme is currently getting serious consideration -- and not from crackpots. This time, three massive freeway tunneling projects are being studied by regional transportation leaders. Two are funded by the pork-laden federal transportation bill recently signed by President Bush.

Each of the tunnel options purports to fill gaps in the region’s freeway network. The city of Palmdale is pushing a highway hole through the San Gabriels to Glendale. An aide to L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich calls it “a sorely needed link that will provide incredible pollution relief and traffic mitigation.” The head of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is pitching a tunnel to solve the 50-year stalemate over plowing the Long Beach Freeway through South Pasadena. And at least six Orange County cities back a tunnel under the Cleveland National Forest to ease commuter trips to cheaper housing in Riverside County.

The fallacy of these boondoggles isn’t that the stupendous environmental, engineering and financial obstacles will doom them. The problem is that they are colossally bad ideas.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the federal pork fairy were to grant the fervent wishes of the tunnel boosters. What would we gain? Go back as far as the yellowed newspaper clippings of the 1920s and the answer is always the same: congestion relief. The scale and costs of projects grow ever more Pharaonic, yet harried motorists continue to be gridlocked by empty promises.


You’d think Southern Californians would finally wise up. Remember when the interchange of the 5 and the 405 in Orange County was widened to 26 lanes? Even that record-breaking “gridlock buster” is clogging up. A landmark study by UC Berkeley, based on 18 years of data for 14 California metro areas, concluded that added trips quickly engulf “improved” roadways, reproducing the original congestion. The research showed that every 10% increase in capacity spurred an average 9% increase in traffic within four years. The moment the ribbon is cut on new mega-projects, sprawl and “induced demand” start filling them up. New suburban rooftops spawn shopping centers, schools, businesses and infrastructure, fueling even more outward population dispersion. That’s how we grew into a region of 18 million people spread across six counties.

There’s one catch, however. In the past, sprawl just undermined our environment and quality of life. In the new era of pricey oil, it threatens our region’s survival. Experts dispute how high and how quickly gas prices will rise. But no one questions that they will increase. U.S. oil production peaked in 1986, making us steadily more dependent on foreign crude. Most industry analysts predict that the global production peak is just ahead -- or may already be in our rearview mirrors. Demand is soaring. Our appetite for Hummers may fade, but China is projected to overtake the U.S. in guzzling oil within a decade.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments calls for $115 billion in transportation spending between now and 2030. Three-quarters will go just to maintain what’s already built -- the rest for projects already approved. To cover those staggering bills, it projects barely $120 billion flowing from already strapped local, state and federal sources. With a population expected to grow by 5 million over that time, it’s obvious that every spare nickel should go to projects that reduce our dependence on cars, not to goofy ideas that will deepen it.

Southern California needs to grow up -- not out. Some critics question whether L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (in his new role as head of the MTA board) can fulfill his vision of completing the region’s rail network. Yet his goal represents a far more attractive future than the tunnel vision behind more suburban sprawl. Our best bet is to link transit investment to smarter land use, not indulge in profligate pipe dreams.


RICK COLE is a former mayor of Pasadena and now the city manager of Ventura. His views are his own.