The Costs and Benefits of Carmageddon

Los Angeles survived the weekend known as “Carmageddon” with minor bumps and early project completion. Despite major predictions and media saturation warning against at total meltdown, there was a tremendous amount of congratulations amongst Los Angelinos for avoiding apocalyptic gridlock.

Instead there were heartwarming stories of people biking, enjoying their neighborhoods with a newfound appreciation, loving the sparsely populated beaches and the very light traffic on the roads. Air pollution and smog levels in the city dropped. Carmageddon became “Karmageddon”! Public transit activists are floating ideas of having more car-free weekends. Wouldn’t it be nice if traffic was cut in half because every other weekend people voluntarily stayed home? Wouldn’t it be great if people had more block parties and biked to meet up with friends? There are lots of benefits to walkable, bikeable, public-transit-able neighborhoods  – we’ve known that for years – and Smart Growth America is fighting to create these choices in neighborhoods across the country.

But it seems in all the warm, fuzzy feelings about the success of Carmageddon and the benefits of a weekend with fewer cars on the road, much of the costs of construction on the 405 have been overlooked. The City of Los Angeles is pushing back, saying that the State of California should pick up more of the cost of the weekend- the overtime police patrols, paramedics, and other services the city provided rang up a price tag of millions of dollars. That doesn’t even account for the actual cost of widening Interstate 405, which was the impetus for highway shutdown in the first place.

The multi-phase project to widen the 405 by one lane for ten miles will ultimately cost one billion dollars.  Meanwhile, California is in a massive fiscal crisis, and 70 percent of existing state roads are not in good condition. Smart Growth America’s recent report on DOT spending, “Repair Priorities”, found that California needs to spend more than a billion dollars annually for the next 20 years to bring its backlog of roads into good condition. Expansion projects, like the work on the 405, are sometimes necessary but they are incredibly expensive and create massive future financial liabilities. Especially at a time when resources are so strained, the financial implications of highway expansion should not be overlooked. It’s great that people survived, maybe even thrived, during a weekend without a freeway. But Californians also need a rigorous conversation about what transportation spending priorities should be, and whether expanding one lane of a highway for ten miles is really worth $1 billion of tax payer dollars, or whether that massive sum could be better allocated to repairing the roads that are already crumbling across California.