Merge Mash Madness

Think traffic is bad now? You ain't seen nothing yet... and no relief in sight.

by Carolyn Chase


ave you ever been to a presentation where well-meaning people are telling you that everything is going to be just fine while your every instinct is telling you that is definitely not the case?

    This happened to me recently at a Caltrans/San Diego Association of Governments' presentation to the San Diego TeleCom Council – a high-test group if ever there was one – when it comes to understanding network design and bottlenecks.

    The presentation was on what should be a high-test topic: how the construction of the new “bypass” lanes at the 5/805 merge will impact already out-of-control traffic through the merge. And what is the eventual capacity-nirvana of this costly (current estimate is $180 million) project? What is the traffic management plan to deal with construction-related congestion?

    The project is to add between 2-4 lanes outside of the existing lanes that would allow 805 northbound traffic to SR56 east to flow past the parking lot of the merge. In the other direction, 5 south travelers wanting to go 805 south could “bypass” southbound 5 congestion via the new lanes that begin and end around SR56 and start on 805 just south of the merge.

    Caltrans District Director Pedro Orso Delgado touted the fact that the construction contract came in at less (9%) than the Caltrans estimate, stating, “this funding will be available to help deal with construction related congestion.”

    The smart question from the audience was: Why are you focusing so much attention on the merge when the problem is really to the north? What's the schedule for doing something about that?

    Caltrans answer: We're studying that.

    The network builders in that room did not need to study it. The conclusions are obvious. The bottleneck will remain and more traffic will back up behind it. We are going to continue to get screwed by the system.

    Like buying a bigger expando-belt, this “fix” will expand the size of the merge into an even bigger parking lot and greatly increase travel times through the merge because traffic won't be able to go north any faster anyway. Those who can perhaps escape to SR56 face the unfortunate prospect of having the bypass lanes filled up by trucks backed up behind another I-5 merge point.

    I asked the Caltrans project manager if they had modeled the traffic flowing through this area to see how this project or other scenarios would impact congestion. The answer was, “No. That's too expensive and would take a long time.”

    Aside from the fact that other sources at Caltrans say that they have modeled it – and some modeling would be a requirement of the EIR – the attitude of this project manager was not lost on me.

    His response seems to be the organizing motto of regional transportation agencies: everything is too expensive and takes a long time. I sensed NO urgency that there is a daily disaster out there – nor any commitment to properly deal with traffic or transit integration during the construction.

    Some historical perspective on really large, risky transportation construction projects is in order.

    Work on the Union Pacific end of what would become a transcontinental railroad didn't begin until December of 1863, and it could scarcely have begun under worse conditions. National interest and resources were all tied up in the Civil War. But even at that, it took a mere five-and-a-half years (Dec 1863 to May 69) to build hundreds of miles of track through wilderness and some of the most formidable geographic obstacles known to engineers, using severely limited and dangerous technology.

    FLASH forward to the modern age of efficiency and technological wonder we think today is.

    This expansion of the merge, which is merely to add a few lanes for less than a mile, is projected to take 3 YEARS on a “pushed timeline.” Local rail experts are proposing that it will take them seven years to design and build a mere six miles of track in an existing flat right-of-way.

    What's wrong with this picture? Even if we don't quibble about the price (conscripted labor conditions being what they were in the 19th century), what can justify the extended timeline?

Traffic is no accident


    Does anyone really think there is anyone holding the San Diego Association of Governments – much less Caltrans – accountable? Look around. We are drowning in traffic from a system that is completely unaccountable for producing a mix of good projects on time, on a budget.

    There is a daily disaster on our freeways and planners are forecasting more. But there was no outrage on the part of anyone at this meeting. The overly smart questions from the audience were cut off due to time.

    What is Caltrans/SANDAG plan to deal with construction-related traffic?

    Every major construction project is required to have a “Traffic Management Plan” to mitigate construction-related traffic.

    This TMP consists of 4 components:

  1. Public Information – basically telling us to stay away
  2. Motorist Information – “real time!” – basically telling us to stay away
  3. Incident Management – “real time!” – tow trucks will be on-call to get stuck in traffic trying to get to incidents
  4. Construction Management – a no-brainer, like most of the above.

    Why are there no “Transportation Demand Management” measures? And what about funding transit alternatives? So-called TDMs are pretty much the cheapest and most practical way in the short term to deal with congestion: by moving and reducing and consolidating trips. I received one of the best bureaucratic answers ever encountered, “Because they aren't in the Project Study Report and we can't do anything that's not in the PSR ... TDMs are new to Caltrans and there is no funding for them in the Traffic Management Plan.”

    But if you see the value in them, why can't you add them to the Plan? “We couldn't go back for more money. The City and SANDAG are going to have to come up with the money.”

    They have gone back at least three times for more money for this project. What about the money you just saved from the construction estimate – and that your Director stated could now be available? I would have to speak to the Director about that. As far as the project manager knew, those funds would not be available. Calls to the Director's office went unreturned.

    Budgeted at $3 million over the 5-year construction timeline, there appears to be no substantive support for the kind of Olympic traffic challenge before us. When I asked for a copy of the plan I was told the only thing that exists was the Powerpoint presentation for this meeting. Other sources at Caltrans tell me that there is a plan – just not a very good one.

What's the opportunity?

    We're about to enter the Olympics of traffic congestion folks. You think you've got traffic now? You ain't seen nothing yet!

    Planners tell me that in the next five years “we're going to experience what real congestion is like.” What we have now, while an anathema to long-term San Diegans, is considered by professionals some of the lightest urban traffic in the state, if not the country.

    The design “standard” for the Regional Transportation Plan is to make things “less worse.” After increasing our taxes and building everything in the plan, traffic will still be as bad as today, and likely worse.

    The region has a plan folks, and the plan is for more traffic – and more taxes! Transportation planners admit that what they're building will only provide “temporary relief.” Environmental Impact Reports show that the new capacity will be quickly filled. Jurisdictions continue to approve projects without requiring regional infrastructure fees. We cannot catch up with the current approach.

    But the sick growth pattern in California continues, and San Diego regional projections shows we are approaching “L.A. kinds of volumes” in the major corridors – especially the I-5 corridor, where they are expecting 24-hour, dual-direction flows at capacity in the next few years. They describe the situation as “very, very problematic” and see demand for dual HOV-lanes in the corridor! Honest assessments of traffic volumes in the I-15 corridor could require as many as 22 lanes. Even if you had a place to build them, a Surface Transportation Policy Project study of freeway widening projects around the country found that the collective hours of congestion lost during construction were not made up after the project was finished.

    There is a lack of integrated modeling, thinking and planning about transit's role in the system. Nor have the cities in the region really embraced land-use designs that reduce traffic flowing on to the overburdened regional systems. On the land use side, the answer is more compact development, transit-oriented development, and walkable and livable communities. The more trips that can be kept local to communities, the more room on the regional systems for commuters and commerce.

    But while cities continue to fight over where to put growth – and allow projects to go in without requiring regional infrastructure funding – the key to keeping your sanity in the rising traffic is to find the creative ways to avoid it.

    In response to criticism, spokespeople for Caltrans have noted, “The old adage, 'We can't build our way out of congestion,' is more true today than ever. The future of transportation is going to rely heavily not only on projects, but it will also be contingent carpooling, transit, the Coaster, and the trolley. Those are all going to figure heavily into how successful our future transportation is going to be.”

    These “Transportation Demand Management” (TDM) measures also include telecommuting, flex-time, compressed work weeks, vanpools, “guaranteed rides home,” and all manner of ways to shift and reduce trips. The only good news on the horizon is that by shifting as little as 1-2% of traffic, you can significantly reduce congestion – at the lowest cost.

    TDM measures were a key component of Los Angeles' successful hosting of the Olympic Games. They were so successful that traffic was not an issue.

    Why does TDM get such short shrift in our region? It's undervalued by both the agencies and the business community. For the former, it's not glamorous or big-budget. You can't name it after an elected official. It requires hard work and education. For the latter, it appears too much to them as an additional cost, not an approach to reduce costs and improve employee sanity and productivity. But this is likely to change as the traffic – and the road rage – continues to rise.

    It ought to be abundantly clear that the Chamber of Commerce, EDC and impacted businesses all need to help and not expect to have “government” solve the problem. You can see what the current system of public agencies are able to deliver: more traffic.

    Good business sense says that a happy employee is a productive employee. If you are trapped in traffic at 7:45am because management is unable to consider other options, your stress level goes up and by the time you get to work you're already spent. On the way home is no different. How many people rush their work to beat the traffic and get home? How many families are disrupted by time wasted? Too many.

    Good business TDM programs increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and improves recruitment and retention. IRS Code Section 132(f) allows $100 in tax-exempt transportation benefits per employee per month.

    Schools have a major role to play as well. If everyone has to be in class when everyone else needs to be at work we compound the problem. “Soccer mom or dad” is an interesting euphemism for a fleet of mega-SUV's lumbering all over creation to make sure their precious cargo is safely delivered. Why is this necessary? Because we have designed communities where kids can't walk to school, where streets are designed for cars not people, and where the perception of crime is high because we all live behind “privacy walls and fences” so there are no eyes on the street.

    The opportunity of the 5/805 merge mess is that area businesses – and all others trapped in the rising tax/traffic paradigm – will be seeking solutions as never before. The question is: will the agencies increase their capacity to help them organize? Will the business community have the leadership to organize themselves? It's certainly in their interest to do so.

    I would suggest they start first with the out-of-date Traffic Management Plan for the 5/805 merge. Compel Caltrans to do a real TDM plan. Surely if L.A. can get itself together for a one-time event, we can get something together for our daily “Olympics of traffic.”

    Carolyn Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times, Chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board, and a member of the San Diego Planning Commission. E-mail her at