Could the era of building new freeways in California be over?
Last month, the California Department of Transportation agreed to shelve plans for the first new freeway in Los Angeles County in more than a quarter-century. The 63-mile High Desert Corridor freeway was designed as a new route, up to eight lanes wide, to speed travelers and trade between Palmdale and San Bernardino County’s Apple Valley.
The freeway plan was born of old California. The idea for an “L.A. Bypass” connecting the I-5 and I-15 highways surfaced in the 1930s. It was revived in the 1970s as a way to get people and goods around the traffic-clogged Los Angeles Basin, and the project slowly progressed over the next few decades, even as new freeway construction increasingly fell out of favor.
Although proponents rebranded the High Desert Corridor as an innovative multimodal transportation initiative, complete with a train line, a bike route and renewable energy transmission facilities, its centerpiece until recently was still the freeway. But the project raised many serious questions, including:
Why would California plow new highways through open space to enable more cars to travel to far-flung subdivisions when the state is trying to persuade people to drive less to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming?
Why, when Los Angeles County is spending billions of dollars to build light rail and subway lines to provide alternatives to commuting by car, would the region support a project that perpetuates driving and will eventually become another traffic-clogged nightmare?
And what will it take for state and local leaders to follow through on their ambitious climate goals and stop building a car-centric transportation system that sprawls ever outward?
In the case of the High Desert Corridor freeway, it took an environmental lawsuit.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit Climate Resolve sued in 2016 to block the freeway, arguing that Caltrans didn’t adequately address the potential contribution to global warming. Projections showed the route would have resulted in 4 million additional miles being driven every day, at a time when California has to slash the number of vehicle miles traveled to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Under the agreement with Climate Resolve, Caltrans cannot begin work on the freeway without completing a lengthy supplemental environmental impact report. But in reality, the agency has no intention of doing the study or moving forward on the freeway in the near future. The freeway was put on hold before the lawsuit was settled. There wasn’t enough demand to justify building it, nor was there funding to pay for it. Instead, Caltrans is looking at widening existing roadways to handle the area’s traffic needs.
Plus, the state transportation agency has now begun to judge the value of transportation projects based on their climate and development impacts. That’s welcome and overdue. The goal of building infrastructure shouldn’t just be to move vehicles quickly; transportation projects should aim to reduce the need to drive and the length of the drive. That should mean no more large exurban highways that induce long commutes.
That’s why other elements of the High Desert Corridor — including plans for an electric high-speed train and bike route — can go ahead without additional environmental study. Those are the types of projects that California should be working on. The Measure M sales tax increase approved in 2017 included $1.8 billion for the High Desert Corridor, which could still be used for the high-speed rail component. Regional leaders are working with Virgin Trains USA on a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that would run along the corridor.
California cannot meet its ambitious climate change targets without transforming the transportation system. The transportation sector is the state’s largest source of greenhouse gases, and emissions have risen despite the arrival of vehicles that burn less fuel per mile.
Perhaps the demise of the desert freeway is a sign that California leaders are finally getting serious about matching their climate goals with their transportation decisions.