The Hidden Legacy of Highway Expansions

California prides itself on being an environmentally-conscious and climate-progressive state. Though it has accomplished much to deserve that title, such as being the first state in the nation to ban the sale of gasoline cars by 2035 and setting the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, it makes the same mistake as other states in believing that highway expansions can solve congestion and address transportation barriers.

The practice of highway widening started with the creation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. Roads needed to be built to connect communities and the US spent $130 billion to overzealously build almost 50,000 miles of highways, believing that it would lead to less traffic. Today we know this is not the case. Expanding highways actually increases traffic through a process known as induced demand. A study found that increasing road capacity by one percent actually leads to a one percent increase in the number of cars on the road in a few years. 

Our history of road expansions has had more negative consequences than just worsening traffic. More cars on the road lead to increased greenhouse gasses and air pollutants entering the atmosphere through car exhaust. A recent report by the California Air Resources Board found that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise all over California in the last 4 years, partially due to the 5% increase in the number of highway lanes. Additionally, over a third of Americans currently live next to busy roads and experience more cardiovascular diseases caused by poor air quality, with children especially being more at risk for asthma attacks and impaired lung function. Finally, highway expansions have resulted in severe consequences for disadvantaged communities. Studies estimate that over 200,000 people nationwide were displaced due to highway construction in the last 30 years. Highway construction projects have historically targeted many black neighborhoods, with more than a million people forced to leave their homes.

So why does our state continue to tout highway widening as a solution to transportation barriers despite it often worsening the situation? Part of the issue is the existence of transportation legacy projects. Many of these projects have been in development for over ten years and have either local, state, or federal funding invested in them. Due to the large scale of these projects and the amount of funding invested in them, it is often difficult to stop these projects from being built or amend them to be more environmentally friendly. At the same time, the magnitude of these projects means they could have a large impact on increasing greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled in the region. 

One example of a legacy project is the proposed Capital SouthEast Connector in Sacramento County. This project was first proposed in 2006 and consists of building a four-lane, 34-mile long expressway. Project proponents claim that the connector will reduce traffic in the region by making travel quicker and reducing idling from cars. However, none of their calculations take into account induced demand, which would actually increase traffic on the road and make air quality even worse for the Sacramento region, already ranked to be one of the ten worst cities in the U.S. for air quality.

The SouthEast Connector was included in a recent Sacramento ballot measure, Measure A, which proposed to increase the sales tax in the region by 0.5% for the next 40 years and would allocate almost $1B to highway expansion projects, a third of which would have gone to funding the SouthEast connector. The Coalition for Clean Air along with our partners worked to oppose the measure due to our concerns that this measure would irrevocably worsen the air quality and GHG emissions for the region. The Measure was successfully stopped at the last November election as it failed to receive a majority of the votes. However, despite our best efforts to keep this project from being funded, it was approved to receive state funding from the Trade Corridor Enhancement Program at the California Transportation Committee hearing a few months ago. 

Despite this setback, our state is slowly starting to take steps in the right direction to take a closer look at which projects it chooses to be funded. With the release of the Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI), California has set forward transportation priorities that it intends to meet, such as promoting projects that do not significantly increase vehicle miles traveled and investing in zero-emission infrastructure for passenger and freight vehicles. To ensure implementation of this document, Caltrans is set to release a rubric later this year that will evaluate projects based on their ability to meet CAPTI principles if they choose to apply for state funding and send projects back for a redesign if they fail to meet the requirements. The Coalition for Clean Air has also been working closely with various transportation agencies to ensure that our state strongly considers the impact a project will have on air quality, GHG emissions, and vehicle miles traveled before funding and building it. We have also been working closely with Caltrans to request that they make available a list of total legacy projects being considered across the state to make it easier for the public to track and be involved in the project development process. 

Finally, some agencies have started to reconsider highway widening projects if they are no longer deemed to be a benefit to the public. One such example is the 710 freeway widening project that was canceled last year. Despite the decades and billions spent in the planning of this project, LA Metro decided to stop the widening of the freeway following the strong pushback from residents and distributed the remaining funds to benefit the local communities. This example sets a precedent for how our state can choose to stop a large legacy project to protect the surrounding communities and the environment from its adverse effects.

As climate change impacts become more serious each year, it is imperative for California to take progressive steps to reverse the impacts. One such step is acknowledging that the way we have built and planned transportation projects for the past century is counteracting our efforts to address the climate crisis. If we are to make meaningful progress in stopping the climate crisis, California must reassess its project selection process and ensure that only the projects that offer the most benefits to all modes of transportation and not just light-duty vehicles are being selected for funding. While we applaud the work our transportation agencies have done to move us closer to this goal, we urge our state to take bolder steps to protect our communities and climate from the deadly effects of air pollution and climate change. 

Edit: Caltrans recently released a video on the importance of reducing vehicle miles traveled. Click here to learn more about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *