By Noel T. Braymer
A part of Los Angeles County in great need of rail service is the roughly 30 miles mostly along the I-405 Freeway between Los Angeles International Airport and the northern San Fernando Valley. Los Angeles County voters agreed in 2008 with Measure R by including one billion dollars in funding for improvements to this corridor to be built by 2039. This money won’t be enough to build a project to cover the entire corridor. There doesn’t seem to be any new planning for this corridor since the end of 2012. Several alternatives then were studied including Bus Rapid Transit, different forms of fully grade separated and at grade rail transit and so on. At the end of 2012 the L A Metro board approved the concept of creating a Public,Private, Partnership (PPP) as a way to raise private money to speed up construction on the “Sepulveda Pass Corridor”. The basic plan for this is to build 2 tunnels, both 21 miles long. One tunnel would be a double deck tunnel for a toll road mostly under the 405 between LAX and the 101 freeway. The worst traffic congestion on 405 is the 9 miles between the 10 freeway between downtown and West Los Angeles to the 101 freeway across the San Fernando Valley. A smaller tunnel 21 mile miles long would be built for double tracked rail transit which would create a north/south line from LAX connecting with the Green, Crenshaw,Expo, Purple, Orange Busway lines as well as the Van Nuys Metrolink/Amtrak Station in the San Fernando Valley.To pay for both tunnels tolls would be charged for drivers and transit fares for the Sepulveda Pass rail line would be higher than with the other Metrorail lines. A model for the toll road tunnel was the Alaska Highway tunnel planned for Seattle to start construction in 2013. A tunneling machine the height and width greater that a 5 story building would create the double decked road tunnel. This would be more economical than building 2 tunnels. So how has this worked out for Seattle? Not very well is an understatement.
Construction started in summer of 2013 to build a 1.7 mile tunnel along the water front of downtown Seattle to replace an elevated freeway. This project is a state highway. But because of opposition from mostly rural areas, the Washington State legislature capped the State’s spending at $2.8 billion dollars. The city of Seattle agreed to pay the difference if the project went over budget. This was a bad idea as things turned out. By the end of 2013 after digging a 1,000 feet of tunnel, the tunneling machine got stuck. There are conflicting accounts of what happened. One is the tunneling machine struck a steel pipe which damaged the machine. The other is the tunneling machine overheated which caused the breakdown. One problem with such a large surface area, the drilling head would be handling areas of that could have both hard rock and soft soil creating stress for the machine. Using a large surface area on a tunneling machine also increase the chance of hitting something unexpected. Whatever the reason the machine was stuck. A 120 foot deep hole had to be dug to get the tunneling machine out and repaired. This took well over a year. In the process of digging the hole, water had to be pumped out to prevent flooding. This lowered the water table by the waterfront and caused land in the area to sink and damaged nearby buildings. In roughly the time it was suppose to take to build this tunnel, so far only a 1,000 feet has been built. By the end of this year the tunneling machine is suppose to be back in service. But this is just one of many dates that have been announced and then postponed for restarting tunneling.
LA Metro graphic on one of the alternatives for the Sepulveda Pass Corridor.
The question of how successful paying for new roads with tolls needs to be addressed. Tolls and Public, Private, Partnerships (PPP) have been touted for almost 20 years as the solutions for our road infrastructure problems. Yet most toll road projects in this country have failed to produce the revenue projected for them and several projects have gone into bankruptcy. In many cases the government has ended up buying and taking over these “boondoggles” and bailing out the projects. Despite this terrible record the Reason Foundation recently proposed spending of hundreds of billions of dollars for toll roads, many with tunnels in Southern California to handle”congestion”. These would be financed with “private money”, as is proposed for the Sepulveda Pass Corridor and the many failed toll road projects that have had to be bailed out by the government.
What is the attraction for private investors to many of these PPP construction projects, even though they often fail? Most of the contracts for these PPP’s have language which places the risks for these projects on the government partner in these “partnerships. When you can invest money in a project that you can’t lose money on, you get lots of people investing, no matter how stupid the project is. And building more roads to relieved “congestion”, is a really stupid idea.
There are numerous examples that show more roads increase congestion, not reduce it. This is called “Induced Demand” which means expanded road capacity encourages drivers to drive more. Recent attempts to reduce congestion on the 405 with additional HOV lanes has not reduced congestion. Caltrans has admitted so. In Texas a massive freeway interchange with as many as 23 lanes was built in Houston to “relieve congestion”. There was a modest drop in congestion once this project was finished in 2012. But since then congestion has become worse than before it was built. So what is the best way to relieve congestion on the 405?
First thing is don’t expand it. What is needed is decent rail transit service built sooner rather than later. To do that, first reduce construction costs which means use existing rights of way and avoid tunneling as much as possible. Using the 405 is the best place to put this rail line and putting it on the surface is the cheapest way to do it.The advantage of rail transit is that a double tracked service that is fully grade separated can carry many more people than a new freeway. To accomplish and pay for this LA Metro needs to get into the land development business. The best way to reduce traffic congestion is to make it easier for people to live with less driving. That means development around stations to allow people to walk, ride bikes or their mobility devices to shop, be entertained, get to work, go to school, go home or access services without a car. LA Metro should team up with private investors to redevelop as much as possible property around stations. This would be particularly true for the stations for a 405 rail line from LAX to the north San Fernando Valley. Land development has always been the main source of profit for transportation construction. Building railroads was mostly done to open land up for development. In Hong Kong the local public transit agency has been profitable for years because of commercial development it owns near its stations.