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We can’t widen our way out of traffic congestion. So why are we still adding lanes?

Traffic backs up on the 15 Freeway.
Afternoon traffic on I-15 looking south from the Jurupa overhead bridge toward the 60 freeway in Ontario, Calif.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning. It’s Wednesday, Feb. 7. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Fixing traffic? Just a few more lanes should do it, right?

This is the familiar promise for traffic-clogged freeways — and one that is provoking controversy in the Inland Empire:

Transportation officials say commuters will benefit when express lanes are added to the truck-clogged Interstate 15, burdened with diesel-burning big rigs traveling to and from mammoth distribution centers.

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The California Transportation Commission approved the project last month — overturning an earlier vote that stalled the project when concerns surfaced over potential environmental harm. The lead-up to the final decision was contentious. The commission voted to limit everyone’s speaking time and one commissioner, who had raised objections about the environmental analysis, was unable to show a lengthy presentation outlining his objections.

The episode “exposed a deepening rift in the state between its climate goals and the list of freeway widening projects that some say are gliding through without scrutiny and threatening the health of the people who live near them,” Times reporter Rachel Uranga wrote this week.

And now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating allegations that state and local transportation officials presented flawed data that misled federal regulators in a decade-old project that had widespread support from federal, state and local agencies.

If one of the state’s goals is to reduce car travel in an effort to reduce harmful emissions, how does creating more space to drive cars help?

To unpack this, I spoke with Jeanie Ward-Waller, a former Caltrans executive and whistleblower. Last year, she accused the agency of skirting regulations to expand roads and was subsequently demoted. She’s since left the agency.

“There is definitely a lot of rhetoric [and] conversation and commitment for change, but I think there is still a lot of momentum behind particular projects,” Ward-Waller said. “Once you have some funding ... it’s kind of off and running, and it’s often hard to stop the momentum of that project as it was conceived in early stages or to reimagine or to pivot.”

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Does widening freeways work?

It can — for a while. But decades of studies point to a paradox at the heart of our quest to conquer soul-sucking traffic, technically known as induced demand.

Basically, when we build more lanes for cars, there’s initially more breathing room for regular commuters. But when the perception that “traffic isn’t as bad now” takes hold, more people decide to drive at peak times, and traffic is again slowed — this time with more cars.

This concept is on full display with the 405 Freeway. In 2011, county transportation officials heralded a widening project that would make driving less hellish through the infamous Sepulveda Pass. Traffic improved briefly with the new lanes. But drive it now and it’s even slower than before.

Induced demand isn’t a foreign concept to state and local transportation planners. But some researchers say agencies’ estimates of how much induced travel a widening project will cause are often wildly inaccurate — if those estimates are included at all. What’s more, one transportation expert said, it is unclear how new express lanes will affect induced demand.

And more traffic spews more harmful emissions.

If widening doesn’t work, why are we still doing it?

That’s the multibillion-dollar question. Some people who study transportation or work(ed) for government agencies point to a few key factors.

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First, as Ward-Waller explained, is the deep-seated culture at Caltrans of “wanting to build more things.”

“That is an engineering mindset and culture that is very strong at Caltrans,” she said.

Second, there’s political pressure to do something about traffic. Tied to that is additional pressure from organized labor to keep construction jobs plentiful with the widening projects that provide a reliable source of work for thousands. That’s a big reason some trade unions stand opposed to policies and legislation aimed at rethinking freeway expansions across the state.

“There is still a fear about losing a type of project that has been really important to supporting the industry’s growth over time,” Ward-Waller said, “and it’s seen as a threat.”

Then there’s public perception. Transportation and the resulting impacts are complex layers in our daily lives, Ward-Waller said, and it’s a challenge to help everyday commuters look beyond building more as the solution.

We’ve all driven on a freeway and seen the obvious signs of construction — orange cones, work vehicles, the sign proclaiming here are your tax dollars at work. For many, this might signal that something is being done to improve the roadway, and possibly our commutes in the process.

But those road signs don’t leave a lot of room for nuance, as Ward-Waller explained:

“It’s complicated, and so that’s part of the challenge. The easy and obvious solution… that occurs to people is ‘well, we should widen because there’s so much demand here.’ But it’s hard to conceptualize that that’s not actually going to fix your problem long term.”

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What would actually work?

One approach that’s been successful elsewhere is congestion pricing: charging people to use certain roads at certain times.

L.A. Metro officials are currently studying how to try that out here, seeking to launch a pilot program in 2028 (maybe).

But even though studies of European and Asian cities that have implemented pricing models show promise, it will undoubtedly prove a hard sell in car-dependent California.

Ward-Waller pointed to New York City as the best test of the public’s ability to give congestion pricing a real shot. Officials are expected to move forward with a plan to charge drivers $15 or more per day, depending on the kind of vehicle, to enter heavily congested Manhattan.

“If they can’t do it in New York, where 40% of trips are taken by the subway … you probably can’t do it anywhere in the U.S.,” she said.

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Today’s top stories

Mud and debris flow block a road as a man walks downhill.
Mud and debris flow from hills caused by heavy rain blocks the 10400 block of West Quito Lane in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

California storm

Crime and courts

Sports

More big stories


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Commentary and opinions

Today’s great reads

A collage of old photos of Alma Rosa Gonzalez Herrera in Papantla, Mexico.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The vanilla queens of Mexico. Vanilla is deeply rooted in the identity of Papantla, a city in eastern Mexico where reinas of festivals are anointed with a vanilla-made crown.

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Other great reads


How can we make this newsletter more useful? Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


For your downtime

Items for sale inside the Boomerang for Modern showroom in Palm Springs
Items for sale inside the Boomerang for Modern showroom in Palm Springs.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Going out

Staying in

And finally ... a great photo

Show us your favorite place in California! Send us photos you have taken of spots in California that are special — natural or human-made — and tell us why they’re important to you.

Sun sets over a Mexican city.
Sun sets over Papantla, Mexico. Vanilla, grown in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times, is deeply woven into the identity of Papantla, a city in the state of Veracruz. Residents of Papantla, once known as the city that perfumes the world, are on a campaign to boost local production and consumption of vanilla by introducing the ingredient in dishes, using it to make artisanal figures and experimenting with how to grow the crop better.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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Today’s great photo is from the Times’ Marcus Yam. In Papantla, the Mexican city that once perfumed the world, there’s a push to revive vanilla.

Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor
Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor

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