Carmageddon: Is It Worth It?

One of my most enjoyable bus rides is the one that goes through the Sepulveda Pass, so unlike all the others which go through only built-up Los Angles.

One day last year I was in a car with a friend heading to the Valley and was appalled to see bulldozers tearing away at the hillside. I expressed my dismay and was shocked to find that my car-driving friend couldn’t care less.

He said he never notices the pass since he’s driving and if he wanted beautiful scenery this is not where he’d come for it. Months later, speaking to another motorist, I find his sentiments echo that of my friend and I wonder, do drivers really never see the beauty of the pass because they’re so intent on driving and is it to them as visually appealing as a light socket? Go ahead, level it all, create that twenty-five lane freeway its rumored CalTrans has in mind as its goal – they couldn’t care less.

I find solace in the US Department of Transportation’s document, Visual Impact Assessment for Highway Projects, where it outlines just how important it thinks the visual impact of these projects really are (with environmental aesthetics being at the top of its list).

I start thinking, am I just an Eco-freak, less in tuned to the needs of the majority of car-driving Angelinos? And though the ecological and visual loss is regrettable, it’s actually all worth it to ease their pain.

The recent flurry of attention to the project brought about by the impending Carmegedeon has got many thinking, not just I, whether its all worth it. The Texas Transportation Institute says the LA metropolitan area leads the nation in total annual hours of delay, total annual gallons of wasted fuel, and total annual economic cost as a consequence of congestion – more than $9 billion. And According to CalTrans, this project will add ten miles of ride-share lane, which would improve the flow of traffic through the pass. Additionally ramps, bridges and sound walls will be improved.

This all sounds like great news to motorists but there’s just one thing, even those who back this project fully, will concede that freeway widening is only a temporary fix. And depending on how long the benefits last, the project may be considered worth the expenditure and extra traffic created over the years its being built, or not.

Opponents of the project say that adding a carpool lane makes no sense when carpooling has been steadily decreasing. And another factor (also mentioned in a RAND cooperation report) is the phenomenon known as triple convergence, which states that additional travelers will tend to converge from 1) other times of travel, 2) other routes of travel, or 3) other modes of travel, slowly eroding the congestion benefits.

Could this money not have been used to add some form of public transit through the pass? Even though we would still have sawed off hills (if it was above ground) and paid a hefty price tag, at least it would be viable for a much longer period – all you had to do was add more train cars to increase capacity. A main reason people don’t take public transportation in LA is because it doesn’t go enough places, hence the Mayor’s 30 in 10 project. Adding a line here would have added to that initiative and contributed greatly to creating a larger body of transit users.