California Transportation Commission Chair: “Widen Freeways for the People”
Widening highways now is a way to keep the status quo in place for years into the future, when we need to change that status quo with alacrity.
4:52 PM PDT on October 24, 2023
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Choking back tears, California Transportation Commission Chair Lee Ann Eager closed out the commission's meeting last week with an emotional speech. "Our job is about people," she said, "and about making people safe." Eager hails from the Central Valley city of Fresno, which suffers from some of the worst air quality in the United States.
"We had a thoughtful and lively conversation about how we spend money" on roads, she said, referring to questions that had been raised over the course of the two-day meeting about Caltrans highway widening projects. "The people in the Central Valley have been left behind for decades. The people still have hope that things are going to turn around…. If they had a BART, if they had a Metro, or a Blue Line, they'd be on it," she said. "They do not. They have [Highway] 99. Even if everyone in this valley had electric cars, and all the freight was electric, they'd still be on the 99 - because that's their lifeline."
"For people to be able to get to where they need - to work, to school, to hospitals - sometimes they need that extra lane," she said.
The meeting had started the previous day on a similar note. "California transportation is about people," Chair Eager had said then. "Our goal [at the CTC] is to make sure it's the best. We will focus on what's important here." She said this right after making a vague reference to some issue at Caltrans that she did not name directly.
Audio problems were plaguing the venue in Madera, which made it difficult at times to make out what people were saying. Commissioner Carl Guardino had said something mostly inaudible about a personnel matter at Caltrans, though his conclusion that the CTC would "honor their [Caltrans'] process" came through loud and clear. Commissioner Joseph Lyou brought up "allegations," but his comment was lost in the ether and that one word only came across clearly because Executive Director Tanisha Taylor repeated it in her largely inaudible response.
Caltrans Director Tavares picked up the "people" theme in his report to the Commission. "What's the reason we do the work we do?" he asked. "It's about people, always about people. Caltrans is a people-focused, people-first organization. We also stand firmly in favor of climate action and equity,
at same time that we are keeping our transportation system resilient and safe for all."
Even though - as far as one could tell through the muffled audio - none of them said her name, it was clear that the "allegations" referred to Caltrans Deputy Director Jeanie Ward-Waller's charge that Caltrans is misusing highway funding. Those allegations were made public after Ward-Waller threatened to file a whistleblower complaint and then was removed from her position - so from one narrow angle it could be framed as a "personnel matter" that no one would expect Caltrans to comment on. Some of the Commissioners seemed happy to leave it at that. It could have been that Tavares' focus on "people" was an attempt to defuse any questions about "personnel matters."
But misuse of highway funding is not a personnel matter. It may be a legal matter. It is definitely an ethical matter, in the face of California's very public commitment to fighting climate change and to spending highway dollars to repair and maintain the existing system, and not to expand it. And it most definitely is a matter that the California Transportation Commission needs to address out loud.
Members of the public tried to make them talk about it. Representatives from Clean Air California, ClimatePlan, and other groups called in and mentioned Ward-Waller by name. "California is no closer to meeting its goals to reduce driving [than when the California Action Plan for Transportation Investment was released in 2021]" said Sofia Rafikova, Policy Advocate for the Coalition for Clean Air. She referred to a recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council that reiterated what is already clear: "Caltrans must stop investing in highway widenings. We urge you to see that Caltrans is held accountable, and to take an active role in investigating [Ward-Waller's allegations]. And to take a second look at any highway project being proposed for funding."
"Our trust in Caltrans is damaged," said Rick Longinotti of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation in Santa Cruz, who called in on the second day of the meeting and also mentioned the allegations from Ward-Waller. "Caltrans is trying to circumvent CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act], but they can't circumvent the CTC - unless you allow it," he said.
His comments were in response to a project being considered for approval that would widen Highway 99 in Kern County. It was also in line with a recent letter advocates wrote to Governor Newsom asking him to step in and investigate whether Caltrans is properly using highway funds or not.
The Highway 99 project adds a lane but the environmental documents claim it would not lead to more vehicle miles traveled, largely because new mileage would be truck travel, which CA rules do not require them to count. Marc Vukcevich of Streets for All pointed out that "this project would add 47 million vehicles miles traveled to the highway - claiming that it has no effect is disingenuous."
And although Eager insisted that the "people" of the pollution-plagued Central Valley need this new highway lane (which Caltrans said would be a truck-only-lane at some point in the future, which would mitigate any new vehicles miles traveled - can't make this up), Olivia Seideman of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability had a very different perspective.
"The local community in Pixley [through which the freeway would be widened] don't want it," she said. "Community members have said they don't want it if it does not address the potential impacts to the community, and those remain unaddressed in the final Environmental Impact Report."
"We strongly urge you to reject this project, because it will increase VMT (vehicle miles traveled). Even the local air district has challenged Caltrans' assertion that it won't affect air quality. This calls into question Caltrans' true priorities," she added.
The Leadership Counsel had reached out to the local community in 2020 and submitted comments on an earlier environmental impact report. The community was concerned about noise, air pollution, and increased runoff into Deer Creek, as well as the additional truck traffic and potential displacement, direct or indirect (as truck facilities expand or are introduced, for example). "Our comments were not addressed" in the final Environmental Impact Report, she said, "and we were never notified of the draft or final EIR."
Commissioner Joseph Lyou tried to get Caltrans staff to explain why they were moving ahead with the project even though there was no clear plan to mitigate the extra vehicle miles. What followed was a convoluted, sometimes inaudible, sometimes incomprehensible conversation about whether this highway widening was "fully mitigated" as Caltrans was claiming, or would be at some future point after a statewide study about potential managed lanes is complete, and about why different models show different numbers on induced travel.
As Commissioner Lyou clearly stated at one point, "We should never be in this situation where we have no choice other than to add lanes. [The Commissioners] are in an impossible situation."
"Our highway system is a living part of our communities," said Commissioner Adonia Lugo. "As we grapple with the mistakes we made, we have to deal with that. But the way forward is confusing and unclear. VMT is an imperfect tale; it doesn't tell us about access to jobs or quality of life."
"It is very challenging for me as a commissioner to know whether we are being asked to approve projects because of the jobs being created - which is fantastic - or whether we being asked to approve a project that would provide temporary jobs that could be better provided via sustainable modes. Induced VMT is part and parcel of what we are being asked to invest in."
"There has been a breakdown in trust in terms of what we are being asked to vote on," she said, adding that "there is a lot of validity to the request for a moratorium [on highway projects] until investigations are completed."
"One of the things that frustrates me the most is that they say they are doing expansions in the name of safety," said Commissioner Martinez. "They have to articulate the truth. We have to be honest about where we're going and how we're going to get there."
Chair Eager, for her part, insisted that the highway is "the life blood of those communities that need freeways" and that "putting things off until we find the perfect solution would be devastating. I think anyone who lives here would tell you the same thing," she said, ignoring the testimony from Leadership Counsel.
In the end, all the Commissioners - except for Lugo - voted to approve the project.
The arguments about reducing driving are hard, because Chair Eager is correct that many residents of the Central Valley rely on cars to get where they're going. That is because for years the state has invested its transportation dollars almost entirely in making it easier to get around by car than by any other mode.
But the point the advocates are making is not that everyone must immediately park their car and find a bus or a bike or a way to walk to work. The point is that every dollar spent on widening highways right now is a dollar not spent on better, cleaner, safer, and more sustainable alternatives. It is also a dollar that will require future dollars to be spent in order to maintain what it is building today.
And California, at least in public, has admitted as much. State agencies from the Air Resources Board to the Strategic Growth Council to the California State Transportation Agency - even Caltrans - have all said Californians must reduce their driving or we have no hope of solving the climate or environmental crisis.
But, while they struggle to figure out how to change course, Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission continue to enable - and heavily invest in - highway widening projects. Rationales for the harmful status quo use a wide variety of excuses, from safety to "finishing what was started" to being able to move freight freely throughout the state.
Many of the strategies they use skirt their own rules and public commitments made by the state - this is the substance of the "allegations" by Jeanie Ward-Waller. Caltrans piecemeals large-scale highway widening projects into small "auxiliary lane" chunks to avoid environmental clearance and mitigation processes (see extensive reporting at Streetsblog L.A. on that). Caltrans says that additional miles of travel by trucks don't count, because they are not required to count it, even though truck traffic is one of the most environmentally damaging in terms of emissions, road wear, and greenhouse gases. (Yes, hurray!, California is requiring trucks to go greener - one day maybe. Meanwhile truck traffic and emissions will rise for years to come.)
But note also: many of the public-facing presentations about projects being funded in California lead with bicycle, pedestrian, and transit improvements. Caltran's semi-annual S.B. 1 report to the Commission, for example, highlighted the Santa Gertrudis pedestrian and bike trail in Temecula, school safety improvements in Redding, and the double tracking of rail at the Long Beach Port to allow more trains in and out of the facility.
These are all excellent, and kudos to California for investing in them and to Caltrans for being proud of them. But they are unrepresentative greenwashing slivers that fail to represent the whole story. That same report also highlighted a project in Carlsbad on I-5 that added four new lanes to the freeway. Sure, they are "managed" lanes. "That will bring a fifty percent reduction in commute times," according to staff, even though all indications are that even adding HOV lanes does nothing in the long run to speed up commutes. They also pointed to giant interchange in Solano County at the junction of I-80, I-680, and SR 12 that is "smoothing traffic and has improved access to local amenities" but will also encourage more driving in what could have been a relatively quiet rural area.
Even Caltrans Director Tavares' tweet about the $3.7 billion just allocated by the CTC at this meeting features a photo of bike riders in a paint-protected bike lane, claiming "these investments will help California maintain and build a safer, more reliable and more climate-resilient transportation system. Commuters, bicyclists, pedestrians, and freight movers will all benefit as we continue to improve and rebuild our infrastructure."
But how much is really going to sustainable modes? How much of what Caltrans calls "safety improvements" are really more and more and more freeway lanes? That information is not broken out.
Towards the end of the meeting the Commissioners approved a long series of requests for additional funding for projects that have already been started, totaling more that $158 million. Some of the requests were for extremely large increases over the originally agreed upon allocation - as much as 135 percent more. These projects are for pavement rehabilitations and bridge replacements, including unspecified "safety improvements."
What's going on? Why so many requests for more money? The same thing happened at the last meeting, and the Commissioners complained about it, but they still approved the funding. How is California going to be able to invest in proven alternatives to driving - to improve the environment, advance equity, and fight climate emissions, not to hamper people's mobility - if all the money transportation is swimming in right now is sucked up into increasingly complex and expensive road projects?
Streetsblog California editor Melanie Curry has been thinking about transportation, and how to improve conditions for bicyclists, since her early days commuting by bike to UCLA long ago. She was Managing Editor at the East Bay Express, and edited Access Magazine for the University of California Transportation Center. She also earned her Masters in City Planning from UC Berkeley.
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