Joe Mathews usually writes insightful columns about California’s economic and environmental challenges. But he whiffed in yesterday’s piece in the San Francisco Chronicle extolling the virtues of the notorious “high desert corridor” freeway project in Southern California.
I’ve discussed the project briefly before, but it’s basically a gold-plated freeway. It’s hardly different than any other that Southern Californians have been building for over a half-century now, all of which have combined to create the region’s current sprawl, traffic, and air quality problems.
This particular freeway would connect Palmdale with Apple Valley in the ecologically sensitive high desert north of urban Los Angeles, just over the San Gabriel Mountains formed by the San Andreas Fault (see map above and below). It would run about 63 miles, in a three-to-six-lane configuration. That route is currently served by a slow-going, mostly two-lane highway through cities like Lancaster, Adelanto, Victorville, and Hesperia.
In terms of its environmental impacts, the freeway would allow those cities along the route and any new ones off the new freeway offramps to sprawl unobstructed over these desert sensitive lands. The end result will be a continued spread of the urban megalopolis over the desert.
So why is this freeway gold-plated? The project includes space for high-speed rail, an energy transmission line, and even a bicycle lanes in parts. Importantly, it would allow high speed rail (and many cars) to travel easily from Interstate 5 near the Grapevine to the San Joaquin Valley across the desert to Interstate 15 in Victorville and Apple Valley, en route to Las Vegas.
Despite the sprawl risk, Joe Mathews seems to be enamored of the project in part because of this rail connection. But also because of the potential for easier goods movement:
Today, international trade is slowed in the L.A. Basin by the dense traffic in the seaports and on the streets. Advocates of the corridor say it could become a new “inland international port,” with logistics facilities, rail and local airports tied close together to move cargo. Such a port would allow the logistics industry to expand beyond the basin, bringing more jobs to the desert for local residents and shortening their commutes.
At the same time, the project could take traffic off of Los Angeles’ roads, while providing infrastructure to encourage more green technology and transportation. (On the less green side, supporters believe manufacturers will flock to the High Desert Corridor, because it is outside the basin and its air regulation.)
Mathews never once mentions the obvious concern with building yet another Southern California freeway: more inducement to build car-oriented sprawl, which leads directly to the exact challenges crippling Los Angeles: crushing traffic, poor air quality, and lack of open space. Not to mention a harsh quality of life spent car commuting all day. And any temporary alleviation of traffic in urban Los Angeles to the south will just induce more driving, as we’ve seen happen over and over again.
For this reason, environmental groups like Climate Resolve oppose the project. They note that the environmental review on the project failed to account for this sprawl inducement. Instead, the state’s transportation agency simply assumed in the environmental review documentation that this exurban growth will happen anyway. Conveniently, with that baseline in mind, this freeway (they argue) will in fact lessen traffic.
The story of Los Angeles should by now be obvious to everyone, especially Mathews: freeways don’t work at promoting smart land use, and they don’t alleviate traffic. They create more of it. And they crush a region’s environment, mobility, and quality of life in the meantime.
This project, with the exception of the needed high speed rail connection, should be stopped immediately, and Los Angeles leaders should ensure no more funding goes to support it.
Rather than reading Mathews’ column on it, we’d be better served reading Einstein: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.