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San Diego City Council approves $22.5 million widening of SR-56 freeway

The San Diego City Council on Monday voted unanimously to spend $22.5 million to widen a 2-mile stretch of the SR-56 freeway in Carmel Valley with new HOV lanes.

The project, which has been planned for decades, was protested by climate activists who argue it will be a major setback in the city's quest to zero out its greenhouse gas emissions over the next 12 years.

"I hate sitting in traffic, but study after study shows that widening highways does not reduce congestion," said Rachel Graham, who lives in Carmel Mountain Ranch on the eastern edge of the freeway. "This project may have made sense two decades ago. But approving this project now, as our climate crisis becomes increasingly dire, is indefensible."


Decades of research show expanding freeway capacity — even with HOV lanes — provides only short-term traffic relief. In a matter of years, the wider freeway tends to attract more cars onto the road as drivers start making trips they otherwise would have avoided. Researchers call this phenomenon "induced demand" or "induced travel."

Transportation accounts for more than half of San Diego's carbon footprint. The transition to electric vehicles cannot happen fast enough to meet the city's Climate Action Plan goal of net zero emissions by 2035, meaning success depends on massive reductions in driving.

City and regional planning documents have long called for SR-56 to be expanded to three continuous lanes in each direction, up from the current two lanes. The widening approved by the council Monday will cover the section from El Camino Real to the Gonzalez Creek Bridge.

But Caltrans, which will manage the project on the city's behalf, has said if construction bids come in over budget, it will have to shrink the project down in size.

Councilmember Joe LaCava, whose district includes the western half of SR-56, said more sustainable travel modes such as biking, walking or riding public transit are not viable options for people who live in car-dependent neighborhoods.


"Our job is to ensure there are many climate-friendly mobility options available to as many residents and neighborhoods as possible," LaCava said. "Today's item is an admittedly imperfect implementation of delivering another mobility option."

The county's long-term transportation plans include rapid bus services that could use the HOV lanes on SR-56 — but that bus service would not begin until 2050, as the region focuses its limited transit dollars on improvements in denser neighborhoods that would benefit more people.

Still, Councilmember Marni Von Wilpert, who represents the bedroom communities on the eastern half of SR-56, said she's holding out hope that transit on the freeway will come sooner, particularly as new housing gets built there.

"When we say we want to increase density, we always say as a city we're going to provide the infrastructure with that density," Von Wilpert said. "And we have not done that in my district."

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said while he would vote to approve the project, he was not convinced it will lead to a revolution in carpooling that would ultimately reduce vehicle travel, as city staffers claimed.

"The reality is that this is not a win from a climate perspective," Elo-Rivera said. "We need to own that, recognize that, and do everything that we can to turn the wheel in the right direction as quickly as possible."