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I Lost My Job at Caltrans for Speaking Out Against Highway Widening

My concerns were repeatedly brushed off by my bosses, who seemed more concerned about getting the next widening project underway than following the law

Jeanie Ward Waller, former Caltrans Deputy Director for Planning & Modal Programs, at a California Bicycle Summit with Dr. Steven Cliff, now executive director of CARB. Photo: Melanie Curry/ Streetsblog

Note: A version of this piece was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Cars were once a glittering symbol of freedom and progress in California. Today, congestion causes millions of families to lose significant portions of their day in traffic. The lie that we have been told for too long is that more freeways will help. The truth? Expanding roads only makes things worse.

Last month, I was removed from my executive role at Caltrans because I spoke out – again – about the agency’s mindless impulse to add more lanes. It has to stop.

My concerns centered on a large freeway project described to the public as “pavement rehabilitation,” which is repaving. I believe the project is in fact an illegal widening of a ten-mile freeway section of the Yolo causeway between Davis and Sacramento on Interstate 80. After scrutinizing project documents, I realized that Caltrans officials were widening the freeway, using state funds that cannot be used to add lanes. By calling it a “pavement rehab project,” Caltrans avoided public disclosure of the project’s environmental impacts.

My concerns were repeatedly brushed off by my bosses, who seemed more concerned about getting the next widening project underway than they were about ensuring that Caltrans followed the law or considered the future.

This is classic legacy-highway-builder thinking, perpetuated by an agency culture that has failed to adapt to tectonic shifts in the transportation industry. Caltrans leaders believe they are widening highways in the public interest - despite decades of empirical research proving otherwise, and the agency’s own policies requiring solutions that reduce driving. Some Caltrans leaders even believe that they know what the public wants better than the people themselves.

I was the Deputy Director of Planning and Modal Programs at Caltrans. In this role I was charged with planning for California’s future transportation system. In other words, I was responsible for thinking ahead; I had to consider the state’s projected growth and to plan for disruptions like climate change. I set policy for Caltrans to improve travel options, reduce environmental impacts, and address harm to those communities negatively impacted by freeways.

And let’s be clear: freeways have negative impacts.

Highway expansion projects need to be questioned. This is because most freeway widening projects will not result in sustainable public benefits. Most of the time, adding lanes worsens traffic within a few years. Sometimes, the impact is almost immediate, such as the well-publicized opening day of the new lane on I-405 in Los Angeles. It is easy to understand why: more people choose to drive routes where additional space is created. This phenomenon, known as induced demand, is reflected in state law from 2013 and well documented on Caltrans’s own website.

Caltrans knows that if you build it, too many will come.

Highway expansion is also incredibly costly even beyond the typical expenditure of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per project. Expansion projects ultimately increase emissions that exacerbate climate change and pollute neighborhoods near freeways. Freeways also have a long history of displacing and dividing communities. For example, Oakland’s communities of color were destroyed and segregated from downtown and white neighborhoods in the hills with the construction of I-580, I-880, and I-980, which was built in 1985. Now there is a move to tear the 980 down. Widening any of those freeways today would destroy more homes or businesses in neighborhoods that still suffer the legacy of the last century.

In lieu of widening freeways, Caltrans should spend those billions on solutions that will provide long-term improvements to travel. Those solutions include expanding rail and increasing bus service, as well as giving buses priority on our roadways so they aren’t stuck in traffic. Making public transit convenient, safe, and attractive would provide families real alternatives to driving. It’s equally important to invest in making streets safer to walk and bike for shorter trips and to connect people easily to a train or bus so they can opt to drive less or not at all.

No single solution to our transportation challenges is a silver bullet. The system is exceedingly complex and it will take time and significant investment before alternatives to driving will match it for convenience. Our freeway system is not going anywhere soon, and we need Caltrans to maintain it. Caltrans can actually maintain highways more effectively without expanding them, while investing significantly more in providing people better options for travel that doesn’t involve driving.

To advance these solutions, Caltrans needs a total overhaul by reform-minded leadership that can play the long game. Too many who have ascended through the ranks at Caltrans have proven that they cannot implement structural change and want to keep Caltrans on the same, congested path. I spent six years beating the drum of reform inside the agency. But I crashed into the “green ceiling” – resistance to doing things differently, to thinking greener, to modernizing not just how we build roads, but how we think about how roads are used.

My green ceiling was also a glass ceiling. Caltrans is dominated by men, and though I am a trained engineer, my ideas were routinely dismissed or diminished. Were they unpopular because I was “too emotional” or “got flustered” or advocated “too aggressively”? These were all criticisms I heard during my tenure at Caltrans. Or was it because I had the temerity to ask critical questions about the legitimacy of public investment in widening yet another highway? The two are related. I embodied an existential threat to the male, highway-builder culture. I don’t plan on being silenced about either one of those.

The reason why I want to draw attention to the whistleblower retaliation that I face is because I know how important it is to hold government accountable. Taxpayer funds must be used for their intended purpose. Just as important is that we are honest with the public about what we know to be the true benefits and impacts of transportation projects.

Jeanie Ward-Waller is a licensed professional engineer and former deputy director for planning and modal programs at Caltrans.

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