Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Oh Irony, Thy Name is Caltrans!

Most, if not all, of the organizations in Sacramento that commented on the Caltrans DEIR
analyzing Highway 50 expansion expressed disbelief at the idea that expanding the carrying capacity of the freeway by somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent would not increase traffic volumes. Nevertheless, that's what Caltrans claimed.  The Caltrans party line is that the 
project would accomodate growth (and an increase in traffic) rather than inducing it.  What's really growth inducing, they say, is land use policy.  From Caltrans' perspective, transportation planners merely work to clean up the messes created by land use decisions by local governments that permit sprawling urban and suburban growth.  Highways don't cause traffic; people cause traffic.

Caltrans' denial that its projects induce traffic demand may sound disingenuous or tongue-in-cheek.  Apparently, however, the agency is dead serious.  Caltrans has developed this notion to the point where its legal arm is now suing local governments to recover "impact fees" for increased traffic on the state's freeways caused by urban development.  Until very recently, one of the local jurisdictions to feel the wrath of the Caltrans lawyers was the City of Sacramento.

Local governments, needless to say, are not happy about competing with the state 
transportation agency for impact fees.  And advocates for
equitable and sustainable transportation might be tempted to view the Caltrans
position with equal measures of cynicism and disbelief.  When Caltrans focuses its litigious energies on high-density 'smart-growth' projects in highly urbanized areas (as it did in Sacramento), it is particularly easy to view the agency's position with a jaundiced eye.

But to tell the truth, Caltrans may have a point.  Both
land use policy and transportation policy have direct impacts on traffic volumes and air quality.  Allowing jurisdictions to build out at will without accounting for the costs of the increasing traffic demand is just another way that we subsidize automobile travel.  And if developers and local governments were forced to pay for the impacts of their projects on state highways, then they might seriously consider whether congestion-reducing mass transportation projects offer more bang for the buck.

Could Caltrans' aggressive position toward land use policies eventually drive local governments to increase investment in 
light rail or other forms of mass transit? 

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