The High Desert Corridor – A Disaster in the Making
In California, new freeway construction is controversial no matter its location. In Northern Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County, a new freeway is starting to take shape, is funded, and will cause the region major harm if planning and construction on the project continue. Bear with me as I begin with a bit of an analogy.
Modern transportation in many ways is miraculous. It is the only way humans can bend time and space. By increasing travel speeds, we effectively reduce distance and time to travel between places. For this reason, new transportation infrastructure can massively affect land use. Areas that used to be two hours away from a job center will suddenly become attractive bedroom communities with the addition of high speed transportation. This phenomenon has held true for everything from the New York Subway, where new elevated lines to Queens and the outer Bronx spurred massive development in the early 20th century, to Southern Orange County’s tollways that speed travel between massive (and if you ask me, disgusting) planned communities in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.
The High Desert Corridor, a proposed 63 mile freeway between Palmdale and Victorville, will have the same effect as previous freeways to nowhere: massive sprawl. The communities on either end of the proposed route are already low density bedroom communities that are heavily reliant on the automobile. Adding a new freeway between them, thus making countless undeveloped acres suddenly desirable to developers, would significantly increase congestion on the 5, 14 and 15 Freeways and cause Los Angeles County to grow in an ugly, unsustainable manner. I will rebuff all of the arguments for building this freeway and also suggest some more effective ways to improve the mobility of goods and people in Northern Los Angeles County.
First on the list for many supporters of this project is the notion that a freeway would be safer than the current two lane highway. This argument is the hardest to ignore, but think about it this way – construction of an eight lane freeway (complete with greenwashed HOV lanes) and the inevitable development that will accompany it will induce an incredible amount of travel demand. Metro estimates that 100,000 vehicles will use this freeway daily by 2020, a vast number considering the rural nature of the route (for now). All of these additional drivers in addition to a higher 70mph speed limit will result in a larger total number of traffic collisions and deaths along the route than currently occur on highways 18 and 138. Although a two lane highway is more dangerous, the massive increase in road users will more than offset any gain in safety due to a freeway in terms of absolute numbers of collisions and deaths.
HDC supporters cite the need for additional capacity between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and a viable bypass route around Southwestern San Bernardino County and Eastern Los Angeles County. The High Desert Corridor will not reduce congestion on Interstate 15 or Interstates 10 and 210 because any additional capacity it will create will be severely limited by the bottleneck of the Antelope Valley Freeway. Truck traffic bypassing the vast majority of Los Angeles’ eastern suburbs will still have to contend with very heavy commuter traffic on the 14 between Palmdale and Interstate 5. In fact, if the High Desert Corridor creates as much sprawl as other quasi-urban rural freeways have in the United States, we can expect traffic on the 14 to become much, much worse than its already poor state.
Instead of focusing on a sprawl-inducing freeway project like the High Desert Corridor, Caltrans, Metro and San Bernardino County need to explore rail-based options that could massively increase freight capacity and passenger throughput without creating incentives to build low density bedroom communities in currently undeveloped areas. California High Speed Rail will operate along the Metrolink alignment from Lancaster to Downtown Los Angeles, presenting an ideal opportunity to grade separate and increase capacity on a parallel freight rail line. A proposed privately financed high speed rail line, Desert Xpress, is planned to go from Victorville to Las Vegas using comparable technology to CAHSR. Studying a possible extension of the Desert Xpress to Palmdale to link up with California High Speed Rail would benefit travelers to Las Vegas far more than building a freeway that does not address current capacity problems on feeder routes. Again, construction of new high speed passenger lines is the perfect opportunity to grade separate and improve capacity on freight rail lines, eliminating the need for more truck trips between Palmdale and Victorville.
High speed passenger and freight rail is not the end-all-be-all, but it has a characteristic that is crucial in building new transportation corridors: the very nature of train stations is conducive to higher density development, while freeway exits encourage more spread out, inefficient building patterns. I hope the agencies and politicians involved with this project will open their eyes and see that the six billion dollars allocated to its construction could be used elsewhere. Even in North Los Angeles County, such funding could prepare the Metrolink line for high speed rail service and vastly improve bus service. Such things may not sound as immediately appealing as a shiny new eight lane freeway in the middle of nowhere, but I can guarantee that an investment in rail and transit will pay big dividends in the future. Sustainable development must be balanced with a need for unlimited mobility for goods and people. Rail offers the perfect compromise, allowing people to live far from central cities in dense communities, yet still commute to the city for work. Rail also offers faster speeds, lower costs and much lower pollution than trucking. Cancellation of the High Desert Corridor would be a win for everyone. What North LA County really needs is a long term investment in rail.