What It Is
Informal Poll: Linda Mar Against Highway Widening 4-1

Widening Conundrum: Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose

What you see here is a picture of Highway 1 in Santa Cruz County, at the Morrissey Avenue Exit, heading toward Watsonville as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. That's just a few days ago. The traffic was barely moving.

Had you been at this same spot at 4 p.m. on June 10, 2011, three years ago, you would have seen virtually the same thing.

That shouldn't be surprising, right? Same time, same place, same highway; what else would you expect?

Well, you might expect something else if you knew that between 2011 and this year, the Santa Cruz County Transportation Commission has spent at least $16 million to add "auxiliary lanes" to Highway 1, in exactly this location, with the idea being that this expenditure would improve traffic flow. What this picture illustrates is how the highway is operating today, with those auxiliary lanes. The project is now complete.

Remember, the idea was that these new auxiliary traffic lanes would relieve traffic congestion. How do you think we are doing with that?

Local environmental advocates, and specifically a group called Campaign For Sensible Transportation, strongly opposed the proposed highway-widening project, before the Transportation Commission made its final, $16 million commitment.

One of the points made by highway widening opponents was that a phenomenon called "induced demand" would result in new cars entering the highway when the project was done, using up any new capacity provided by the project. This is not some weird and wacky environmentalist theory, either. The reality of "induced demand" is well recognized by traffic planning professionals.

So, do you want to widen the highway? You can spend a lot of money. You can cause a lot of air pollution. You can increase the amount of gasoline consumed. But if you want to relieve traffic congestion, highway widening is not going to be your best route to success.

The phenomenon of induced demand means that the post-widening traffic congestion will be just the same as traffic congestion before the widening, but with more cars caught in the jam.

In other words, the Highway 1 Auxiliary Lanes project is working exactly as predicted!

Original Blog Post


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@Bridget Duffy: Yes! The light-rail idea is excellent! The initial cost would be huge, but the benefits of a coastal rail line would be astronomical. The old Ocean Shore Railroad was an excellent idea for which the technology wasn't yet in place. We may have the needed technology to make it work now. It would solve a great many more problems than this discussion has been about, and would be a real boon to the tourism industry. If it were quick and easy to get to and from Pacifica without relying on cars, life and the local economy would be way, way better. Let's do it.

When it isn't clear whether one's action will help a little or cause irreparable permanent damage, it might be wise to sit tight until one gets a clue.

So, Dan, you finally admitted after some wiggling that there may be a problem with emergency vehicles getting through, which is a matter of life and death. Then you suggest an alternative that would guarantee nothing would be done about it?

This is not the tunnel. This is a very short stretch of highway. I don't see any arguments from the no side that make any sense.

I like your heart transplant analogy. Except even you admit the patient is sick. This scenario is more like a patient that has a clogged artery. An expert heart surgeon says he can save their life with a simple stent he's done 10,000 times before. But you want to listen to a guy selling magic elixir.

Gee, Bob, I'm glad to hear you're working on that flying car idea. Nobody else came up with anything like that. Until you come up with an actual prototype, we should probably stick with the myriad other more tried-and-true solutions that Caltrans has been ignoring. As far as the money goes, we aren't being offered any money. We are being offered a very expensive project that would cost a lot of money if it weren't for Measure A. Someone likened it to being offered a very expensive open-heart surgery when your heart was not the problem and was, in fact, perfectly healthy. I think Caltrans has misdiagnosed the problem for the same reasons (see the University of Wisconsin report on Caltrans) that it usually does. If we can channel that Measure A money into something useful, that would be great, but if it can be used only to shoot ourselves in the foot. then we really should forgo the pleasure, thank you very much.

It's almost weird how much the language and content of the arguments by the "just do it" widening proponents--C of C, etc.--mirrors the same for the bypass advocates of 30 years ago.

All these "alternatives" are great ideas. Widen shoulders, add an overpass, invent flying cars, but they come much too late in the process. We've had more than 20 years to debate this. If the widening doesn't happen now, we will lose the $50 million in Measure A money and nothing will change for a decade or more. But that's exactly what some people want.

If the people of Pacifica want to relieve traffic conditions while at the same time reduce stress on themselves and the environment, how about an efficient light rail connecting Pacifica to BART? Or if Caltrans really wants to spend all that money, why not create a whole new alternative to Highway 1, up on the ridge? Better yet, tunnel the highway over. Imagine hearing the birds and the surf rather than traffic. Thinking outside the box and being on the right side of history should be the guiding principles in any decision making regarding new infrastructure projects. Imagine a Pacifica RESTORED rather than DEVELOPED. To restore the natural, quiet atmosphere of a small beach community within a 20-minute drive from one of the most exciting cities in the world. Talk about property values!

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks for the good ideas, Bridget. I actually proposed a light-rail connection between Pacifica and Colma BART just a few weeks ago right here on Riptide. Look for that piece on our site and the comments that followed.)

Widening the shoulders, which is something I have never opposed, would solve that problem without the kind of damage that Caltrans is proposing. Widening the shoulders is just one of a great many ideas that Caltrans dismisses out of hand. It has its plan and we're not supposed to pester it with other ideas.

Exactly, Chris. There were three incidents of ambulances having to travel the wrong direction on Highway 1 due to traffic in just the past few months. This one resulted in a nasty head-on that was so bad another ambulance had to be called. It happens all the time.

There was one accident, but how many ambulances have been delayed due to traffic, with what ramifications to the health of the passenger?

I think saying there was "only one ambulance accident" is somewhat terse. Does there have to be five to get your attention or maybe ten? One got mine.

Dan, I think you and others are ignoring the facts.

There have been three reported incidents of an ambulance having to travel in the wrong direction on Highway 1 in just the past few months. One resulted in an accident so serious that another ambulance had to be called.

Mary Ann Nihart reported at a council meeting that she witnessed a firetruck having to go the wrong way on Highway 1 to avoid traffic.

And several career firemen have come forward to say we desperately need this widening. That a few minutes delay is not only a matter of safety but one of life or death.

These are just the incidents that have been in the media. If you believe these are the only times EMT vehicles are delayed by traffic on Highway 1 you fooling yourself. It happens every week.

How can anyone honestly say that delays of emergency vehicles are not a safety issue?

Width of the new Highway 1 "two-lane" bridge about to be built across San Pedro Creek? 63 feet. A standard traffic lane is 12 feet wide.

Another piece of your multi-lane future.

There has not been a rash of ambulance accidents. There has been one ambulance accident. And widening the highway doesn't guarantee that there won't be another.

Caltrans and county politicians/bureaucrats got away with more than doubling the size and increasing the cost even more than that for the tunnel project, somewhat easily getting over on urban environmentalists after Measure T passed. Wasting billions on the Bay Bridge provided some cover for wasting merely hundreds of millions over what was necessary on the tunnels.

A coastside freeway is being piece-mealed by Caltrans. They look forward to the traffic jams at the pinch points at either end if the Calera widening takes place because such things incense a gullible public and make folks susceptible to anything offered to ease their hyped-up pain. Eventually the finagled widenings and upgrades join to make the freeway that could not be created all at once.

The short two-lane stretch from Linda Mar up to the (four-lane-sized) tunnels is another case of issues that will lead to a Caltrans widening "solution" in the future. People heading the wrong way into the tunnels? That won't be a problem with a four-lane road with a K-rail divider down the center. That little landslide on the first part of the hill up from Linda Mar, the one that has caused the highway to be closed or subjected to one-lane traffic control in the past (El Nino fans keep your eye on this place if we get a righteous succession of storms next winter)? Won't be a problem with the huge hillside cut for the widened highway--a cut and roadway that already exists in engineering plans for the bypass. The occasional cyclist getting creamed by a vehicle on the same stretch? Well, we wouldn't want to hold Caltrans to its obligation to maintain the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route (formerly the Bicentennial Bike Route) along the California coast, would we?

Dan, remember the ambulance just recently that had to use the opposite side of the highway to get through traffic around 7:30 a.m. and was hit by an oncoming car? I don't think the safety issue is "trumped up" at all.


Everyone know the Bay Bridge was Caltrans' "ego project."

You can trust Caltrans; between Chinese steel and tolerance exemptions, well, everything will be OK.

"We just want to see if we (Caltrans and SMCTA) can get away with it." Wow. Well, Caltrans (so far) "got away with" building a completely broken Bay Bridge. This is small potatoes.

In your dreams, Hutch. This is an ego project by and for staffers, left over from the 1960s. Hell, even SMCTA Director Joe Hurley told me, "We just want to see if we (Caltrans and SMCTA) can get away with it." It being the Calera Parkway Project.

Great article, John. This does apply exactly to Pacifica's Highway 1 traffic. And any other highway. This is a known fact in urban planning; thanks for including a specific example, so close to home.

How about hiring a professional outside (non-Caltrans) traffic consultant to address issues around Highway 1? The traffic lights are not synched with traffic data -- as most other traffic lights in the country are.

Many viable alternatives have never been studied singly or in combination:

@ Bob Hutchinson: First, it has been determined that the "safety issue" argument is a trumped-up afterthought being used to push this project through. It would be a good argument if it had any merit, but emergency vehicles get through just fine, thank you. And second, a project of this magnitude would disrupt everything about how the south end of town operates. The manager of a Colma plumbing supply that I do regular business with lives in Montara. Ever since that little bridge job got started, he complains of serious inconvenience coming to work every day, and he does so without any leading questions or other prompting from me. I expect that every plumber who does business with him has to hear all about it as well. Caltrans' plan is a bad idea. They know it. We know it, and the only thing keeping it from falling in a heap is the momentum it has from being the only game in town for so very long. Let's give some other ideas a chance.

Great article, John, but it does not apply. We are relieving a bottleneck causing serious safety issues, not increasing capacity on a long stretch of highway that will induce major development.

As far as construction causing delays for years, that's just another scare tactic of the "no" side. We have highway construction all over the state with no real delays. They are wrong about thism just like they have been wrong about everything.

Instead of inducing demand, suppose we try dissuading demand? Let's consider closing one of the two lanes in each direction. Coastsiders might stop making particular trips, combine multiple trips into one, retime their trips to a less congested time, or switch to SamTrans, walking or bicycling.

Thanks to John Maybury for the link to the blog. I emailed the post to about a hundred of my closest friends, and shared the link to Riptide on Facebook. Some of the comments received so far:
“I'm glad there's a real-life example to point to. I think many people don't understand that adding lanes doesn't add efficiency.”
“I well remember Peebles' traffic guy talking about induced demand and calling the widening project pathetic.”
“This is a good cautionary tale.”
“I have been down this stretch many times visiting my family or friends in Santa Cruz and it has been even crazier with the added lanes, actually gridlock past the widening area.”
“Why would widening eliminate a bottleneck down the road?”
“A preview of what Caltrans and the City Council have in store for us.”
“Do our restaurants and business owners think people are going to exit a freeway to go to their business or get a meal?”
“I just really don't get it. I guess you have to have lived in a place where there really was traffic to understand half an hour of traffic a day is not an issue.”
“We need a solution that is multi-modal and not a solution that has been proven inadequate.”
“The current plan will harm our economy, our environment, and our community.”
“The construction will cause 2.5-plus years of unbearable construction that will mean hours of delays for no gain at the end of construction.”

Obviously, they just haven't widened it enough yet. You know if they add about a dozen lanes in each direction that ought to solve the problem.

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