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The road ahead

 June 6, 2023 at 12:00 AM PDT

S1: It's morning rush hour and I'm boarding the 225 bus at a stop near the 805 freeway in Chula Vista. And I'm not traveling alone.

S2: My name is Karen Jewell. I'm the project corridor director for Central Corridors for Caltrans.

S1: Karen is part of an entourage of engineers accompanying me on this journey. She's worked for Caltrans for more than 33 years.

S2: So in high school I liked math.

S1: The idea is to let buses drive on the shoulder of the 805. That way they can bypass rush hour traffic and give transit riders a faster and more reliable commute to downtown from the Mexican border crossing and the South Bay suburbs.

S2: So the idea of bus on shoulder is not new at all. What's different about this project is the technology side of it trying to talk with the meters so that when the bus comes along the shoulder , the ramp meter goes to read and then the bus can cross that on ramp. And then as well as the technology that's on the bus , right ? So it's got the forward collision. It's got blind spot warnings and it's got lane control to make sure that they stay in the lanes.

S1: This morning , however , Karen got some bad news. The sensors at the freeway on ramps aren't working. So the few dozen bus passengers will be sitting in the same freeway traffic as everyone else. This ends up happening a lot. Sometimes there's a crash on the shoulder that prevents the bus from using it. Or maybe the bus can't even get to the shoulder because drivers won't let it move across four lanes of traffic. I ask Karen why Caltrans can't just take away some space from cars and rearrange all of the lanes ? So the bus always has a clear path.

S2: You know , that hasn't really we haven't thought of that. The only thing that you do have to worry about is how do you enforce it ? How do you manage it ? There could be some other issues , but that's something that would be an interesting idea to look at.

S1: From Kpbs in San Diego. This is Freeway Exit. I'm Andrew Bowen. The bus on shoulder pilot project is one example of how Caltrans is trying to reverse engineer the freeway so they serve more than just cars. But after that bus ride , I kept asking myself , Is this the best we can do ? Is the shoulder the leftovers of the freeway the only part we're willing to reimagine ? Or are we capable of something bigger ? As you learned in the last episode , San Francisco's experience with freeway removal has been a big success. I've spent months trying to figure out if San Diego would ever try and replicate that success and say yes to removing a freeway. Turns out it already has. The San Diego City Council and the mayor unanimously supported removing part of a freeway and building a neighborhood in its place. Find out where and why the project hasn't happened yet after a short break. What is it ? Tell me what this looks like here.

S2: So this is the slope of the eastbound to southbound connector to get on to 805.

S1: I'm back with Caltrans engineer Karen Jewell. She's showing me around a fenced off area right next to the 805 on ramp at 43rd Street.

S2: And we're we're below the freeway level. Probably a good 15 , 20ft. Native grasses are growing right now , especially since all the recent rains. There's some landscaping of palm trees.

S1: If you've ever gotten on or off the freeway here , you've probably noticed it's a little weird. It's way longer than most on ramps , and it's really , really tall. Tall as a skyscraper at its highest point.

S2: This one , you can tell it was definitely planned to be a freeway with how high the the connectors were built. It was meant to have , you know , some a lot of different layers going on.

S1: The on and off ramps at 43rd Street were built in 1975. At the time , Caltrans hoped they would connect to a new freeway , Highway 252. We talked about this story back in episode three , but here's a brief recap. Caltrans wanted to build the 252 through the neighborhood of South Crest , but the community revolted , and after more than 15 years of sustained opposition , Caltrans was forced to abandon it. The 66 acres that would have become the freeway were redeveloped into housing parks , an elementary school and a shopping center. But the massively overbuilt interchange with the 805 remained. Fast forward to 2015. The San Diego Planning Department was updating the Southeastern San Diego community plan , and it decided this weird little mistake of history needed correcting so it rezoned the interchange for housing , a small park and a boulevard going down the middle. There was a footnote saying the land belonged to Caltrans and more detailed planning would be necessary. But the idea won unanimous approval from the city council , including now Mayor Taut , Gloria.

S2: Usually the local agencies would contact us to say their interest , and then we start a negotiation of how we can get a project moving forward in that respect.

S1: Karen wasn't in charge of this area back in 2015 , but she knows the conversation between the city and Caltrans about repurposing this interchange never went very far. Caltrans is open to the idea. Its even launching its own program to fund freeway to boulevard conversion projects. But in this case , Caltrans is not inclined to take the lead. Those super tall connectors that carry traffic from the neighborhood to the freeway would have to be demolished.

S2: That cost money , right ? I mean , that's really what it kind of comes down to is , is the local agencies in us and it's also National City because the border is right here having three agencies coming together to to figure out how we could fund a project to move forward.

S1: If the 252 interchange ever comes down , it'll probably be a while. Even if San Diego , National City and Caltrans can all agree on the details , the environmental impact report alone would take at least three years longer if there's a lawsuit , which there probably would be. And Karen's best guess on the construction costs , at least $60 million. Removing a freeway , even just an on and off ramp , is a pretty radical way to reconnect the communities on either side. While there is a high level plan to remove the 252 interchange , no one I've spoken with in city government has ever heard anything about it. For now , it's just buried in a planning document gathering dust. But there is another project that's just getting started.

UU: Come on , Stan. Today is a great day , y'all. Boston Avenue.

S2: Park is a great.

S3: Win for our community , a hard fought win. And we are celebrating.

S1: Julie Corrales is taking the stage at the groundbreaking for Boston Avenue Linear Park. Caltrans is building it right next to I-5.

S3: This area is called out as potential park space in the 1978 community Plan. That's I mean , and , you know , people are asking for it before then for it to get into the plan.

S1: The atmosphere at the groundbreaking is electric. After decades of advocacy , Barrio Logan was finally getting back a small piece of their community that was taken from them when Caltrans built I-5 here in the early 60s. We met Julie back in episode one. She's a community organizer from Barrio Logan , who works for the Environmental Health Coalition.

S3: I mean , I'm really pushing for it. It's , you know , every time we present it , we get a little like , oh , I don't know , That's kind of hard. And my response is , you know , the county did it at the county building and we can do it. And there's parks that have it north of the eight. So why not ? Here we are at a very high risk of urban heat island. It's how climate change will impact us the most and we need to start thinking about that. Where can people get cool ? Our kids deserve water play. You know , we don't have pools in our backyards over here. So I'm most excited about that. And when you when the kids see those pictures , their little faces light up. And I just can't can't wait. If it's , you know , 20 , 29 or whatever , I can't wait to sit there and see all the kids play in the water. My grandbabies , maybe.

S1: Julie gives me some sad news about the project to Caltrans. Ran some tests on the soil here. Turns out it's contaminated with lead. Dealing with that problem will cut into the budget , so the scope of the project has been scaled back. That dream of a water park here is a long way off. I also have some sad news for Julie. In episode one , she said her long term vision is for the park to extend as a lid over the freeway. Well , San Diego sought funding for a feasibility study for that project from the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program , which was created by the Biden Infrastructure Law. Its purpose is to fund projects that undo the harm caused by freeways in disadvantaged communities. The first round of funding awards had just been announced , and this project in Barrio Logan wasn't on the list.

S3: I'm so sad about that. I'm going to have to mull that over. But. But I'm glad some city did. I'm glad somebody logging out there is getting to start their studies and their work on how to reconnect their community. It's happening. And I think , you know , we talked before , we talked about how , like , I know that this work is going to outlive me. Like I know that future generations will come and continue the work that I've been doing. Like I came in continuing the work that other folks have been doing. And so part of that's expected and I just want to do my part while I'm here and I believe in reincarnation.


S3: Yes , exactly. You know , that type of thing.

S1: Freeway lids can be a great way to reconnect a divided community , and there's a lot of support for them in San Diego , probably because they don't require any sacrifice from drivers. But these projects are extraordinarily expensive , up to $1 billion in some cases. The damage and disconnection caused by freeways across the country is immense and frankly , lids are not a scalable solution. Coming up , San Diego tries out a faster , cheaper and less permanent way to reimagine our freeways. Stay tuned.

UU: My name is Mr. Kevin.

S4: Everyone say hi , Mr. Kevin. That was great.

S1: They're getting ready for a group bike ride. Mr. Kevin is giving out some safety pointers.

S4: If your wheel gets into the great , you will fall. Stay off of the shoulder. Stay in the lanes of traffic. Everyone say I understand. I understand. Perfect.

S1: This bike ride is special. Caltrans is closing down a section of the SR 15 freeway to do some road maintenance. And for the first time ever , they're making an event out of it. They're opening the freeway for biking and walking. Okay. We are riding onto the off ramp of state Route 15. I'm here with Briar Marsh , who you met in episode one. He's the architect with the crazy idea that the 163 freeway in Balboa Park should be closed to cars and turned back into Parkland. The seed for that idea was planted nine years ago when he managed to sneak onto the 163 while it was closed for maintenance.

S5: Hi.

S4: Hi. My name.

S1: Here on the 15 we pass by hundreds of people , toddlers , seniors and everyone in between , all with massive smiles on their faces. Families are picking up trash together. Kids are biking around , squealing with excitement. Everyone seems totally blown away by this experience , including me. I've driven on this freeway countless times , but I've only seen it through the windshield. Just standing here and taking it all in. The thing that strikes me the most is the quiet. I'm just struck by hearing the birds chirping on a freeway. Like you would never hear that if you were standing here with all of the cars driving by now.

S5: And this is like the visceral experience of our urban and natural environment that , you know , massive car infrastructure drowns out.

S1: Briar may have had something to do with inspiring this event. He and a friend had a meeting with Caltrans not long ago , and they discussed doing a special event like this on the 163 in Balboa Park. Close it for just one day , even just a few hours , and open it up for biking and walking.

S5: The response was really positive and they were really keen on the idea of engaging the community in a positive way about this space and about this infrastructure. The impact it's had on neighborhoods and cities is something they're aware of. And so trying to improve the relationship with the communities that they pass through is important. This is all my like , you know , interpretation. When I heard the news about this event , I kind of smiled to myself and I called my friend.

S1: He was lukewarm on it , didn't see it as realistic. And he brought up the fact that this section of the 163 has been designated a historic landmark. He thinks that could complicate making any changes to the freeway , but Breyer doesn't buy it.

S5: Any preservationist will tell you that if you actually want to truly preserve it , you need to get cars off of it. So if they're talking about preserving it , right , are they preserving the experience or are they preserving the physical infrastructure ? And if the argument is we're preserving the experience , and I would say that that experience would be more meaningful and more important to the city and the neighborhood. If it didn't have 15,000 cars a day , 100,000 cars a day traveling through it , I don't know what the number is , but it's enough to make it unpleasant.

S1: I looked into it. Our best estimate is about 118,000 cars per day. Breyer is still hoping Caltrans will do another temporary freeway closure event on the 163. That freeway is already surrounded every day by pedestrians visiting Balboa Park. Maybe they'd stumble upon the closed freeway and check it out spontaneously. And just like the time he got to see the 163 with no cars on it. Maybe those people will also start seeing freeways in a different light.

S5: I want people to to see the value of this space and what we've given up and through that feeling that they have ownership over it and that they can perhaps have a little more control over that part of their environment , which has been reallocated to some other use , Right ? Traffic , if people can use it even just occasionally , maybe they'll start to care about it more and maybe they'll start to recognize that this space has value and it's a place that they want to be and they want to experience is pedestrians or in bikes or running. So I think the power of taking back a space , even if just for a moment , is undeniable.

S1: The debate over the future of our freeways is very much ongoing. San Diego County's transportation planning agency Sandag is just beginning the work of developing its next plan for how we'll get around in the future and the reality of just how much work we have to do to reach net zero emissions and how little time we have to do it. Is beginning to sink in. Freeway expansions that have been planned for decades could be on the chopping block and deeply polarizing policies like lane reductions or tolling or otherwise. Making it more expensive to drive might be unavoidable. At the same time , many of our freeways are approaching the end of their useful life. California just had one of the rainiest winters on record and a lot of freeways were pretty severely damaged. The 78 Freeway in north San Diego County experienced sinkholes. Parts of it were closed for almost two months and people were pissed about it. But this kind of extreme weather and these extremely expensive and disruptive emergency repair jobs will only get more frequent as we continue to burn fossil fuels. And the climate continues to change , even if we don't want to decommission any freeways. There may come a day like there came for San Francisco when Mother Nature does it for us. For most of our freeways , there's no direct charge you have to pay in order to use them. But that doesn't mean they're free. There are lots of people who never drive on freeways and are still paying a price for their existence. Regardless of how you feel about cars or freeways. I hope you agree we all deserve a fairer system , a system that's more sustainable and more resilient to the effects of climate change. We need to be honest with ourselves about how much that future is going to cost and what we might have to sacrifice in order to pay for it. Thank you so much for listening to the first six episodes of Freeway Exit. We won't be dropping new episodes on a weekly basis anymore , but we will be keeping the podcast feed alive and switching up the format a bit. So if you haven't already hit that follow button so you know you'll never miss an episode. One last thing I want to hear from you. Did you love the podcast ? Hate it. Do you want longer episodes shorter ? Maybe you have your own story about how freeways have impacted your life. Send me an email or voice memo to Freeway Exit at And if you're in San Diego , we're going to be holding an event on June 10th to talk about this podcast and the future of transportation here. Go to Slash Freeway exit to RSVP and learn more. Freeway exit is produced by me , Andrew Bohn and edited by David Washburn with support from Clare Trager and Elizabeth Hames. Mix and Sound Design by Emily Jankowski. If you like this podcast and want to spread the word , tell your friends about it. You can also help more people find it by leaving us a rating and review. And you can support this work by making a donation at Thanks for listening.

San Diego is closer to removing a freeway than you might realize.

San Diego is closer to removing a freeway than you might realize. Caltrans begins experimenting with temporary freeway closures that allow people to walk and bike on them. The vision for a freeway lid over Interstate 5 takes a small step forward. But the work of reconnecting communities is expensive. What is the price we're willing to pay for environmental justice?