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You can’t have any more toys until you take care of the ones you already own

Alignment of the proposed Rainier Connector

Alignment of the proposed Rainier Connector

Consistent with their goal of promoting stronger, more financially resilient communities, StrongTowns has launched an initiative targeted toward transportation planning.   It’s a topic with which I have long familiarity.

A decade or more ago, my since-departed father noted to me that, for the first time in the better part of a century since highways and freeways were first conceived, Caltrans had no new freeway routes on their drawing boards.  There were improvements to existing routes in design, but any new routes remained in advance planning, years from design and construction, if they ever progressed that far.

Although he’d spent his career in freeway bridge design and construction, I don’t think my father was unhappy with the new status, but he was perplexed by it.  As a post-war hire at Caltrans, he’d been inculcated in the vision that there would always be new freeways to build, making Californian lives ever more convenient and freedom-filled.

His belief in that vision had perhaps begun to weaken, but it was still a change in perspective to realize that no new California freeways would likely open during the remaining years of his life.

I can appreciate his disorientation.  This past summer, I chatted with a high school classmate about our shared hometown, a car-oriented suburb of Sacramento.  We shared recollections of extensive freeway projects that were planned to slice and dice our community during our school years, although none of the projects ever came into being.  For those who aren’t of a certain age, and my high school days were 45 years ago, it’s hard to grasp the certainty we once had that freeway expansion was inevitable and would continue forever.

Given what we now know about the difficulties of funding the long-term maintenance of freeways, it’s a good that that the freeway romance cooled when it did.  But, like many ill-fated romances, it went on too long and left behind too many hard-to-break habits.

For one, even if we’re no longer envisioning four controlled-access lanes from Santa Rosa to Sonoma or from Novato to West Marin, we still spend too many of our transportation dollars on freeway widening and interchange projects, adding to the maintenance burden for the future by providing new improvements to be maintained and by not directing the now available dollars to current maintenance needs.

The problem is we justify these improvements based on the new traffic that was induced by the initial freeway construction and will soon find the new capacity similarly consumed by induced traffic, leaving us no better off.

As an example, I recently wrote of nearly $200 million in freeway improvements currently underway near Petaluma, even as the transportation system within the town continues to unravel.

As another ill-advised habit, even when we don’t look to freeways for urban and suburban traffic solutions, we still build wide arterials expecting them to solve traffic problems, only to again be stymied by induced traffic while digging deeper maintenance holes.

Recognizing the fatal popularity of ever more and ever wider roads, and concerned about the ever deepening maintenance burden being created, StrongTowns is kicking off a NoNewRoads program, highlighting the need to develop reasonable and fundable plans to maintain the roads we already have before adding more roads, lanes, or interchanges.

It won’t be an easy battle to win, as exemplified by a local chapter of the American Planning Association, folks who really should know better, giving an urban design award to a freeway interchange which isn’t urban and doesn’t make much accommodation for either pedestrians or bicyclists.  A list from Eric Jaffe from CityLab of the twelve worst freeway projects now under consideration across the country further emphasizes the extent to which we’re enamored with freeways.

As if on cue, Governor Jerry Brown, in his State of California message, noted the need for extensive freeway maintenance work.  His staff estimated that there is $77 billion of work to be done in his state alone.  (For those reaching for calculators, that would be about $2,000 for every one of the 38.8 million Californians, or about $5,000 for an average household.  It’s not an impossible burden, but still a significant chunk and doesn’t include other infrastructure elements such as water, sewer, and storm drainage.)

Consistent with his laudable goal to build a rainy day fund to tide California through the next economic challenge, Brown refused to make any of the current budget surplus available to tackle the deferred maintenance, instead calling for new fees.  (As someone who came of age during Brown’s first two terms as California Governor, with the signature of the man then known as Governor Moonbeam on both of my university diplomas, it’s odd to see Brown as the most mature adult in the room.)

At the other end of the spectrum, a Petaluma Councilmember wrote an editorial in the local paper (link not yet available) exulting that the funds had been assembled to proceed with the construction of the Rainier Connector, an arterial project that will someday be a logical connection within the city’s transportation system, especially given its proximity to the Petaluma Transit bus yard, but seems woefully premature given the state of the city’s streets.

Celebrating funding for the Rainier Connector is akin to bragging about bringing home a new car to a frontyard filled with aging cars disabled for the lack of new tires and fuel water pumps.

I applaud StrongTowns for their NoNewRoads efforts and will support them with enthusiasm.  But I’ll also note that success, at least in the near term, seems unlikely.  Perhaps we’re no longer looking at building new freeways through every city and town, but the remnants of that attitude are still deeply entrenched.

Next time, I’ll switch to pedestrian advocacy, writing about an upcoming hearing in Santa Rosa that casts a light on how we view alternative pedestrian risks and how we should facilitate more pedestrian activity.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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