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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Transit First” Could Become The Law

— Whenever I see plans to build new freeways or add lanes to existing ones, I think of that line from the movie “Field of Dreams.” If you build it, they will come.

I fear that’s what will happen if CALTRANS goes ahead with plans to expand I-5 from La Jolla to Camp Pendleton. In one construction scenario the freeway would add six lanes of traffic, bringing the total to 14. Add those lanes and the cars will come. The freeway will fill up again and we’ll have 14 lanes of congestion rather than just eight.

This tragicomedy has played out over many decades in Southern California. But now State Senator Chris Kehoe has entered the stage. She introduced a bill in the Legislature that would stop freeway expansion in California’s coastal zone until all mass transit plans in any given freeway corridor are funded and completed. In the case of I-5, this means work on those new lanes couldn’t even begin until double-tracking the commuter rail line, the Coaster, is finished.

Kehoe’s bill, SB 486, is based on a concept called "transit first."

The subject came up in December when SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments, voted to approve a Regional Transportation Plan that included the notorious I-5 expansion plan. I covered the meeting and I spoke to an environmental attorney who justified transit first in a straightforward manner.

“If you don’t have congestion, people won’t take transit,” said Marco Gonzalez.

And expanding freeways to relieve congestion will simply keep people in their cars and ensure mass transit won’t be viable. Gonzalez said you have to build new mass transit systems before you expand freeways to give trains and buses a chance to be seen as an attractive alternative for commuters. Kehoe agrees.

“If freeways are emphasized, transit is always going to be the underused alternative,” she said.

You can read SB 486 for yourself. It’s a confusing piece of legislation that would probably require lawsuits to iron out the kinks. But that’s only if lawmakers up and down the California coast are willing to sign on to a dramatic change in the way highways are planned and built.

In addition to requiring mass transit projects to be built, prior to freeway expansion, Kehoe’s bill also requires improvement of local streets to reduce the traffic impacts of freeway expansion. Again, you’ve got to do this before you add any freeway lanes.

That doesn’t make much sense to SANDAG Board Chairman Jerome Stocks, who just hates Kehoe’s bill.

“It adds a lot of complexity and cost. It reduces efficiency,” he said. “The real trouble is this bill will stop any freeway expansion within the coastal zone. It sets up a system that’s unattainable.”

A Union-Tribune editorial came to the same conclusion.

Maybe Stocks is right, and SB 486 is a de facto ban on freeway expansion near the coast. Would that be a bad thing? Freeways move people and goods and we’ve come to rely on them. But they also require intense use of fossil fuels that cause climate change. And, like I said, congestion seems a forgone conclusion. If you built them, they will come, and eventually they’ll demand even bigger freeways.

If California highwaymen can’t tell us when freeway expansion will stop, maybe SB 486 is the only logical answer.

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