Angelenos survived Carmageddon II after all, but, unfortunately, drivers continue to confront the real doomsday scenario every day on the 405, with Armageddon-worthy gridlock being the daily norm. The ongoing construction work only adds to the mind-bending congestion that existed even before the Sepulveda Pass improvement project started. As work continues, and with so much time to sit in traffic with nothing to do but sit and think, drivers can’t help but conclude we do infrastructure construction – roads, rail transit and, some day, high-speed rail – far too slowly.
In this modern era of instant gratification, we in California (and the nation) are still stuck moving at a molasses pace planning and building our transportation infrastructure. And it’s costing residents and businesses hugely in terms of lost productivity, and also leading us to fall behind other parts of the world that are quickly expanding infrastructure and laying the foundation for economic growth, not to mention better quality of life.
Just how long do we take? Looking at the San Diego (405) Freeway project as an example, back when the draft environmental planning documents were released in 2007 (itself a relatively late milestone, as the project was initiated in 2001, then aborted due to state budget problems), consider the context. George W. Bush was in the White House. Citizens were preparing to line up to get the very first iPhone and the final “Harry Potter” book. The crew of the space shuttle Endeavor was getting ready for a flight to the International Space Station.
Today, the iPhone 5 is already old news and the four “Harry Potter” movies released in the intervening years are fading from memory. Space shuttles completed 18 launches off the planet, and Endeavor has arrived at its new home in Los Angeles, perhaps to be replaced by a locally built Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) spacecraft that’s already achieved two visits to the space station. But back on Earth, we are still nowhere near done with the Sepulveda Pass freeway project.
By Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates, the 405 project is about four to six months behind schedule, and Metro said, “Contractor performance, (Mechanically Stabilized Earth) Wall failures, VA, Getty, and Area 4 (utility relocations near Sunset Boulevard) are the main issues.” Metro, lead contractor Kiewit and third parties need to do everything possible to safely expedite work, as delays exacerbate the impact on the hundreds of thousands of drivers – and drivers’ businesses and families – who use the 405, the nation’s busiest and most congested freeway, every day.
But beyond 405-specific delays, the broader system of how we plan, fund and build infrastructure in California and the nation needs reform. Bottom line: It takes too long. The planning process stretches over many years before the first shovel hits the ground. In this great state where Apple and tech startups seem to revolutionize the world every year with high-tech engineering, we can’t even build an old-school engineering project, from planning to completion, in one presidential term.
High-speed rail – passed by the voters four years ago – will not be finished between San Francisco and Los Angeles until 2028. That’s anything but high speed; it’s at least a decade too slow. Local rail projects like the Westside subway extension are slated to take far too long to construct, although Measure J, on the November ballot, would greatly accelerate the construction schedule of the subway and other projects.
Quick, safe project planning and construction can be done. As an extreme example, consider the rebuilding of the collapsed I-580 overpass connector in the Bay Area, which was rebuilt and reopened a mere 26 days after being destroyed by a tanker truck. Red tape was waived and manpower applied to just get things done quickly. Routine work can’t be expected to match the speed of emergency work, but we must do what we can.
We need to speed up planning and project review; increase manpower for construction; and address delays caused by utility companies, other agencies and lawsuit-abusing third parties. We need to ramp up funding to ramp up manpower to ramp up construction speed and the number of projects we can build. And former Govs. Gray Davis, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson have recommended California Environmental Quality Act reforms to streamline the preconstruction work.
Our infrastructure is a matter of national, state and local competitiveness. Countries around the world are investing in rapid infrastructure construction. While we don’t want to shortcut needed environmental mitigation planning, nor cut quality or safety, we must step up our game.
Will it cost more? Yes. But there is also an exceptional cost to the gridlocked status quo. Slow construction prolongs the freeway delays and postpones project benefits. In Los Angeles alone, the cost of gridlock, with its impacts such as lost productivity, was estimated at $11 billion in 2010. Getting ourselves out of this mess is urgent, indeed.
We can build infrastructure faster. And we must do so, starting with expeditious completion of the 405 project.
David C. Murphy is president of Angelenos Against Gridlock, which supports infrastructure improvements in Los Angeles County.