At least not yet.
There’s nothing more soothing than the happy talk that somehow we’ll find a way to fix our urgent transportation needs and free everybody from traffic stress. But can it be true?
A story late last month cheered the newest light rail line’s completion, reconnecting downtown Los Angeles with Santa Monica. It suggested subliminally that, by adapting 180-year-old technology, could take the stress off freeways. And yet in a region with 18 million individuals only 12,000 passengers used that service the first day. According to Google Traffic, this apparently did nothing to reduce the rush-hour congestion on either I-10 or Santa Monica Blvd.
Then again, everyone forgot the fun of 21 years ago, when Los Angeles was building its Redline subway from the Downtown area to North Hollywood. It destabilized the ground underneath Hollywood Blvd., causing damage not just to the street but to buildings along the way. Things were so messy and ridership so far below projections that in 1998 LA County canceled the final leg of that subway system and banned future subway construction. Light rail construction, only slightly less expensive, continues across the LA Basin. But can it ever lessen freeway congestion?
We could ask the same question about traffic patterns right here in Dallas/Fort Worth. After all, we have light rail that runs from downtown Dallas into Fort Worth and all the way up to Denton and elsewhere. However, first-hand experience shows that this has not lessened traffic along the I-35E corridor, 183, I-30 or I-20. The countervailing argument would be, “Do you know how much worse traffic would be if we hadn’t opened the light rail routes?” To which anyone who has to travel any major freeway to work today would reply, “It couldn’t be any worse.”
In fact, some of our freeways are worse after they’ve been rebuilt. Has anyone noticed that Loop 820, from NE Mall toward I-35W, can often have traffic backed up at 3 p.m. in the free lanes? As one car dealer pointed out, when they rebuilt that freeway they didn’t add any new free lanes, just tolled ones. And because those free lanes now wind around exits and entrances, instead of going in a straight line, they slow traffic substantially. The only thing that could possibly make that multi-billion dollar freeway expansion any sillier is to add a light rail line from Northeast Mall to Meacham Field.
Yes, there are places where major highway traffic congestion is improving dramatically. This is important to know, since many transportation writers have pointed out, ad nauseam, that no matter how many freeways America builds we’ve never improved anything. But pick any dying city or metropolitan area in the U.S., and you will find a place where freeway traffic is vastly less congested, even without more lanes.
Come to think of it, we actually saw that phenomenon here in 2009 and 2010, when so many lost their jobs. One could drive into downtown Dallas, or anywhere else for that matter, at 8 a.m. going 70 mph. Yet despite the incredible traveling convenience for those who kept their jobs in that precarious period, it was probably far better for our communities’ and our neighbors’ pocketbooks when employment came roaring back.
I suspect that nothing we do at this point will improve much of anything. Our economic growth is just too dynamic, and fixed rail will always be too inflexible. Years ago I was invited to a private get-together with then Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, he discussed the major infrastructure issues facing our state. He warned that if we didn’t get started fixing them soon, we would end up like California. Maybe we already have.
In 1972 I lived in Redlands and commuted 69 miles into Hollywood; if I left at 9 a.m., on most days it took barely over 70 minutes. In 1979, traveling from our office in City of Industry over to Century City to talk with accountants, I could accomplish that 36-mile run in less than 45 minutes. As I write this on Monday morning at 9:28 CST, Google Traffic shows a nearly two-hour travel time for that LA trip. Not good.
Next week: Some countries have voted simply to get rid of most cars in the future. (But it can’t happen here.)
© Ed Wallace 2016
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.