Californians are not known for stoicism. Citizens of a state that exemplifies the excesses of the therapeutic culture are known for emoting—usually loudly, often publicly, and frequently well beyond their listener’s point of exhaustion. When it comes to the state’s congested freeway system, however, Golden State residents have developed a high threshold for pain. Sure, the phenomenon of “road rage”—bursts of violence unleashed by clogged thoroughfares—originated in Los Angeles. But it’s the exception that proves the rule. For every motorist driven to mania, thousands more quietly accommodate themselves to the fact they won’t get where they’re going anytime soon. Think of it as the soft tyranny of low expectations.
It takes a true disaster to inflame the passions of California drivers grown accustomed to inconvenience. Over the holidays, they experienced precisely that: on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 14, a tanker trunk filled with 8,800 gallons of gasoline exploded on Highway 60 in Montebello, a community in eastern Los Angeles County’s San Gabriel Valley. The resulting flames were so intense that they caused the concrete in a section of freeway overpass to explode, forcing the California Department of Transportation to close that part of the freeway for the better part of a week in order to demolish the bridge. With Highway 60 acting as a prime conduit for commerce flowing from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach—the nation’s busiest as measured by number of containers—to the massive distribution centers of the Inland Empire to the east, the ramifications for trade were brutal.
In responding to the incident, Governor Jerry Brown took a page from the playbook of one of his predecessors, Pete Wilson, the state’s Republican governor from 1991 to 1999. In the aftermath of 1994’s devastating Northridge Earthquake (a 6.7 on the Richter Scale), which destroyed sections of another vital Southern California artery, Interstate 10, Wilson waived the traditional regulations (including exhaustive environmental studies) that most California construction projects must satisfy before going forward. Wilson’s emergency approach—combined with performance incentives that indexed bonuses for contractors to how quickly the freeway was rebuilt—led to I-10’s reopening in 66 days. The initial projection estimated 26 months. Now Governor Brown has used his official declaration of a state of emergency to waive several statutes and regulations that would impede the rebuilding process.
The instinct favoring swift action is sound, particularly given the economic consequences for Montebello and the surrounding communities. But it invites a question: why does it take an emergency to get roads built quickly and efficiently in California? A 2008 Milken Institute study estimated that, without serious changes to California’s approach to infrastructure, the statewide costs of congestion would skyrocket to $42 billion a year by 2030. As it stands, Bay Area commuters lose an average of 50 hours per year to road congestion. It’s worse still in Los Angeles, where drivers average 64 hours per year idling in traffic.
As is often the case in California, however, near-universal accord in diagnosing a problem doesn’t translate to effective action. The obvious solution—expanding the state’s freeway capacity—is expensive, and most green and NIMBY groups oppose it. Environmentalists fret that expanding access would only strengthen the state’s car culture, putting more vehicles on the road and increasing carbon emissions—though vehicles idling in traffic tend to generate substantially higher greenhouse-gas emissions than those in free-flowing commutes.
Lately, a curious partner has joined the environmental lobby against proposals to upgrade California’s freeways: construction trade unions. In November, Bob Balgenorth, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (an AFL-CIO affiliate), wrote in an op-ed in the Bakersfield Californian: “Continuing to build more and more freeways . . . would be much more expensive, more environmentally damaging, and less efficient for moving millions more Californians up and down our state.” If you think it’s odd that the head of a building union would oppose more building, you’re right: Balgenorth and his colleagues, it turns out, are seeking a favorable contract from the California High Speed Rail Authority, which administers the voter-approved plan for a statewide bullet train. Rail is the environmentalists’ proposed panacea for California’s traffic woes. Balgenorth was appointed to the California High Speed Rail Authority’s board of directors last year.
Projections for the rail project have always been naive. Advocates for the project’s 2008 ballot initiative claimed that it could replace up to 92 million car trips annually, the sort of wild prediction one usually finds in a five-year plan released by a politburo. Since voters approved the project, however, its difficulties have only compounded. More than three years later, not a single inch of track has been laid. Cost projections have ballooned from $40 billion to nearly $100 billion. And California voters now oppose the program by a margin of 59 percent to 31 percent, according to a Field Poll.
For now, then, it looks as if the automobile will remain the centerpiece of California transportation—and it’s past time for the state’s elected officials to recognize this reality. They need to get serious about expanding freeway supply and setting up market mechanisms, such as congestion pricing, to manage demand. Otherwise, they risk a continued drag on the state’s productivity—and sooner or later, public resentment, too. Even California drivers have a limit to their patience.