A CA Bill Would Double the Size of Highways 5 and 99, and Remove Speed Limits

That will solve congestion, says Senator Moorlach, and even--wait for it--reduce greenhouse gas emissions!

How road widening works. Cartoon via @BrentToderian Twitter
How road widening works. Cartoon via @BrentToderian Twitter

Senator John Moorlach, a Republican representing Orange County, has introduced a bill that shows he is either painfully uninformed or extremely cynical.

Moorlach wants to double the size of Highways 5 and 99 and remove speed limits. That will solve congestion, he says, and even–wait for it–reduce greenhouse gas emissions!

Most media coverage on Moorlach’s bill is focusing on the speed limit part, accepting without question the notion that widening the highways would be a solution to “traffic backups everywhere you turn.”

Moorlach, a staunch opponent of high-speed rail, thinks that his plan would not only allow cars to “burn the fuel more efficiently” but would even reduce crash rates. Never mind that France recently discovered that lower nationwide speed limits are leading to fewer traffic deaths.

But set aside the speed limit argument, which research keeps showing is not a good idea. Let’s look at the preposterous notion that increasing highway capacity can reduce idling and traffic congestion, and therefore greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, Moorlach is not alone in claiming that greenhouse gases come not so much from burning fossil fuels but from using them inefficiently–that is, when vehicles are stuck in stop-and-go traffic. Many projects that vied for funds under S.B. 1, the gas tax increase of 2017, made similarly ridiculous claims. For example, engineers working on the Southeast Connector, a new freeway/highway expansion through countryside in Sacramento, claimed that it would bring greenhouse gas emission benefits from “smoother traffic.” This pathetic justification is a very popular shade of lipstick among pigs these days.

Few seem to question this assertion. In fact, elected officials, transportation planners, and engineers keep repeating it, hoping it will help them get funding for highway expansions they claim will also help fight climate change.

Research has found that emission rates per mile vary with speed. Cars stopped in traffic can theoretically have very high emissions per mile, since they’re not moving. But the same research also found that vehicles traveling in excess of 60 mph also produce emissions at higher rates than more moderate speeds.

Relying on emissions reductions from eliminating congestion–by increasing capacity–won’t work, because increasing capacity has consistently been shown to increase driving. This not only eliminates any emission reduction gains, because more driving produces more emission, it also gets rid of whatever temporary traffic congestion relief may have come from having more lanes to drive in.

For a solid, in-person example of this well-researched phenomenon, see the expanded 405 Freeway through the westside of L.A. Or look here, under “Induced VMT from Highway Capacity,” for lots of academic sources.

The concept of “induced demand” is broadly accepted, except possibly by highway-building departments.

So: idling? Sure, it’s obnoxious, and wasteful, and the emissions from it are terrible. But the solution is not to give all the cars already on the road extra room and tell them to go as fast as they want.

Maybe Senator Moorlach is tired of his long commute between Sacramento and his district in Orange County, and wants to drive as fast as he can to get it over with. But his idea really stinks.

Doubling the size of two giant highways crossing the state would undermine every other state effort, large and small, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Then there’s the financial costs of building and maintaining that much highway, and the climate costs of construction and operation.

If Moorlach is really concerned about climate change and congestion, then maybe he should consider supporting an increase in the state’s rail capacity.

Senator Moorlach’s bill is not likely to get very far, but his damaging assertion about greenhouse gas emissions resulting from congestion might fall on receptive ears.

  • Brenden Niller

    I think this plan sounds too good to be true and has many flaws; however, I would support widening all 2-lane sections I-5 to 3 lanes in each direction from Sacramento to the Grapevine. The biggest reason why I-5 is always congested is because there are so many trucks on I-5, meaning that so many slower cars are moving into the fast lane to pass the trucks, but a third lane would eliminate the need for those slow cars to be in the very left lane. However, that would be a very expensive project and would take years to complete, but it is probably the best solution to I-5’s traffic problem.

  • HWYSafetyMan

    Well said.

  • Sincerely

    Someone didn’t pay attend attention in chemistry class. Elements have mass, and that mass doesn’t magically disappear when those elements form molecules. When gasoline is combusted, the carbon in the gasoline reacts with oxygen in the air. The additional mass comes from that oxygen.

    You should try a quick googling before you chime in on a subject about which you’re ignorant. It could save you some embarrassment.

  • Sincerely

    The key phrase there is “starting point.” There are genuine scientific reasons to move on from the 85th percentile dogma, despite the fringe views of the dogmatic NMA, which is why the National Transportation Safety Board says “…there is not strong evidence that the 85th percentile speed within a given traffic flow equates to the speed with the lowest crash involvement rate for all road types” and recommends using context-appropriate criteria. That perspective is shared by a multitude of engineering and transportation professional organizations.

    The idea the the 85th percentile speed is magically the “safest” speed comes from a poor understanding of early traffic engineering studies and a smattering of subsequent studies that were either poorly executed or poorly interpreted, and often from wilfilly ignoring the plentiful contradictory studies. It is not sound science.

  • HWYSafetyMan

    You have it exactly correct. Good thing they eliminated driver’s ed from the schools.

  • HWYSafetyMan

    So, what standard would you suggest be used to determine speed limits? Whatever you say is acceptable? Sure, that won’t ever be abused by public officials. There are SCIENTIFIC reasons for using the 85th percentile speed as a starting point to determine the most appropriate speed limit.

  • HWYSafetyMan

    Your statistics are impossible. First of all, what is a “pound” of carbon dioxide? Do you mean carbon? Second, unless a gallon of fuel weighs 19.64 pounds, which it does not, you have just discovered room-temperature nuclear fusion or a way to create matter from nothing! How would you explain the mass of a gallon of fuel increasing during the combustion process? You have taken a complex molecule, burnt it, and created a less complex molecule but made it heavier in the process. Maybe there are natural forces that are currently increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which you have mistakenly attributed to gasoline. Don’t you see how you have been manipulated into believing the preposterous?

  • HWYSafetyMan

    Wow. I can’t believe the short-sighted comments appearing on this supposedly informative website. Rather than simply accepting everything your state government tells you, try thinking for yourself for a change. High-speed (or low speed) rail will do absolutely NOTHING to solve the extreme traffic problems in the L.A. or Bay Areas. It won’t fix San Diego traffic and it won’t fix Sacramento traffic. Nobody will use rail to travel up or down the state because it will be much more expensive than flying and take 5 times as long. And nobody is going to travel by bicycle from San Francisco to Sacramento, let alone to Los Angeles unless they have a few days to spend getting there and are young enough to do it. The ONLY way to alleviate the traffic mess while reducing emissions is to build more general purpose freeway lanes. HOV lanes are an abject failure of epic proportions by any criteria you would use to evaluate them, yet Caltrans and the legislature are devoted to installing HOV lanes (now usually toll lanes) like some kind of weird religious cult. High-speed rail is just the latest in a long tradition of wasted time and money. Before you get all weepy about the widening of freeways (which is LONG overdue) or the demise of high-speed rail, perhaps you should ask yourself whether there is any alternative to motor vehicle travel that provides as little environmental damage with as little investment while still allowing for necessary mobility? There isn’t one. Automobile engines are a very mature technology and they have reached the point where they actually produce relatively small amounts of emission in comparison to locomotives or any other reasonable alternative mode of transportation. Even your electric vehicles create environmental damage in the manufacture of their batteries and increased output from electrical power plants, so a negative environmental impact is simply unavoidable if you want to move from one place to another – even horses create waste. Walking and bicycling will not replace the car until everyone decides that commerce and personal economic solvency must be ended. This would put everybody on unemployment and welfare. I’m sure there are less than a handful of Caltrans engineers and even fewer California legislators who bicycle to work. Everything the nay-sayers propose as alternatives to building vehicle lanes is either extremely expensive, restricts movement, ignores the transportation of goods, or has an unacceptable environmental cost. People have bought the lie that roads are to blame for the worlds ills, but they are far better than rail lines in terms of the environmental damage caused during railroad construction and their inefficient/restricted movement. Anyone who denies this has a clear agenda against vehicle travel and is opposed to true transportation science and economic freedom for all. You all would be much better served to lobby your legislature to increase the capacities of existing roadways while adopting standards that ensure safety rather than trying to get rid of roadways before we have come up with an acceptable (or even reasonable) alternative. It is unfortunate that you are working against yourselves by treating the cars as if they are the enemy when the real environmental damage is caused by restricted movement. Ask any automotive engineer and they will tell you the same thing. The most discouraging part is that you and millions of other Californians are being used by powerful and greedy interests who seek to profit from your acceptance of inferior roadways and you don’t even know it because you are too willing to accept their lame excuses and junk science. Learn for yourself. Please don’t accept the lies that you have been told so often that they have become part of the social fabric.

  • Dave

    I’m an ex-So Cal resident. This politician being from Orange County, his comment doesn’t surprise me.

  • qatzelok

    The Revolution won’t be televised, but instead, interrupted by highway expansion announcements.

  • Sincerely

    Still calling the 85th percentile speed the “safest,” I see. I guess when you said you were going to start believing safety experts it was a fleeting urge.

  • jcwconsult

    I don’t think the USA is ready for derestricted speed limits in most places. I do think the posted limits should be set at the 85th percentile speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions to maximize both safety and efficient traffic flows.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Jason H

    Sounds reasonable or at least better than the train to nowhere…

  • helloWorld

    no, people wouldn’t go 55. have you seen how people drive. they already go over 80.

  • helloWorld

    actually, I am okay with it. he was referring to the death rates in germany, not france. there are big stretches of highway in germany where you can go fast. the only problem with his proposal is that in germany, they actually know how to drive and properly maintain their cars. I see it as a bad idea because I already see some dummy on bald tires going 45mph on lane 1 while the guy behind him is approaching 200mph. I don’t think we are smart enough to drive over the limit of 90. people don’t understand the concept of slower traffic keep right

  • calwatch

    He’s termed out of office, actually.

  • keenplanner

    The same idiots who oppose the outrageous cost of high-sped rail will support giant freeway-widening projects that cost even more.
    Back during the gas crisis of the ’70s, state speed limits were capped at 55 mph. Guess what? Traffic fatalities dropped dramatically. If Caltrans really cared about safety (and emissions) speed limits would be lowered, but I can already hear the screaming.

  • ben

    John moorlach should have his high school diploma revoked for such an idiotic line of reasoning. Unfortunately, his voter base is probably not much brighter.

  • SF Guest

    How can any highway lanes, segregated or not, NOT have a speed limit? It makes no sense. The bill will never fly in its current incarnation.

    It would be insanely hazardous for a motorist to drive 125 mph who encounters another motorist driving at 50 mph.

  • KJ

    One hopes he will lose the next election. Orange County wake up!

  • artnouveau

    For every gallon of gasoline burned, on average, 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide is released into the air on account of that.

    Obviously, the more gallons of gasoline burned, the more carbon that’s pumped into the atmosphere.

    And, that being the case, logic would have it that the higher the driving speeds, the greater the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere, which is proportional to the amount of gasoline being burned in the process.

  • Andrew

    Horrifying.

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