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It’s time we ban all new freeways & push for more mass transit in 209
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

Want a taste of zombie planning?

Get in your car and head north toward the Stanislaus River on Highway 99 any workday after 2:30 p.m. You can also rise and shine early and head south on the same stretch during the morning commute.

The 120 Manteca Bypass is slowly turning into a snippet of the Golden State Freeway in Los Angeles.

Interstate 205 is not much better.

But for a real taste of how insane textbook planning is, try heading up to Stockton around noon or so — on a Saturday — via Interstate 5.

This is not the new norm. It’s the beginning of “Car-mageddon.”

Without a doubt there is insufficient capacity during commute hours as well as other times during the week and on weekends on area freeways. But here’s the rub — adding lanes will make it better for a while but then it will get even worse.

That scenario has played out on the I-205, the I-5, Highway 99, and the 120 Bypass. All four freeways can likely have one more lane in each direction — although Highway 99 only from the 120 Bypass to Kieran Road. Then we hit the proverbial wall or more precisely the never ending traffic jam.

The additional lanes are being programmed into a San Joaquin County master plan for transit projects over the next 30 or so years.

The problem is it won’t solve the problem. 

Everyone from commuters to planners need to come to accept the fact freeways are the equivalent to civilization today in the United States as rivers once were prior to the early 20th century in much of the world.

Rivers are the natural lifeblood of civilizations. Besides carrying life-giving water for centuries they were the quickest way to move goods and people over long distances. Freeways are the modern-day rivers. And nowhere does that ring truer than the state given credit for developing the modern freeway system — California.

Freeways — regardless of how jammed they get — are the path of least resistance for most commuters as well as those moving goods.

Instead of doing what we have done for the last 60 or so years and have transportation planners become de facto molders of growth, we need to change the narrative.

We need to understand in metroplexes — especially in the exurbs where the semi-rural landscape is conducive for growth such as Modesto, Ceres, Tracy, Manteca — that freeways reduce travel time to prosperous job centers such as those in the Bay Area bring growth. It’s like a bottle of bottomless catsup suspended upside down that is impossible to upright. You want the catsup but just enough that makes sense. Pound and plan all you want and the catsup never seems to flow. But once the bottle neck is broken it comes gushing like there is no tomorrow. A freeway is what breeches the air pocket that holds back growth.

And like the catsup that was once contained in a finite space, once growth starts flowing it spreads out going everywhere creating a big messy blob.

It is why — assuming we want to stop the spread of catsup from altering the flavor and taste of everything on the plate — we have to take some definitive action.

Building new freeways makes as much sense as opening another bottle of catsup in a bid to ease the flow of catsup from the first bottle. There may be bits and pieces — a French fry here and a chicken nugget there — that isn’t inundated with catsup. But ultimately the catsup will simply keep spreading.

To stop everything from becoming the equivalent of Heinz 57 we need to find ways to slow down the flow without completely eliminating access to the catsup we all seem to crave through our insistence that places in the Valley are somehow inferior unless they have everything that is in the Bay Area in terms of shopping, stores, entertainment, and various amenities.

That is where initiatives such as constructing restricted express bus lanes — or converting existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to such use — or building the Valley Link system to extend BART into the Northern San Joaquin Valley and creating a more robust and muscular Altamont Corridor Express rail system comes into play.

Express buses zooming by stalled commute traffic can carry 55 passengers at 60 mph passing three lanes of crawling traffic moving at 20 mph with an average of 1.1 persons in every car. An ACE train set could potentially move in excess of 700 people while Valley Link with shorter and more frequent trains running from Lathrop and ultimately Stockton to Pleasanton/Dublin will move several hundred at a time.

For those systems to reach their maximum capacity, effective and equally robust transit system is needed on both ends. Much of the Bay Area is getting there. Cities on this side of the Altamont have only started scratching the surface and that includes Modesto and Stockton.

So what is needed to make sure we don’t turn the Northern San Joaquin Valley into an endless sea of development?

There are six things we need to do.

1). Ban all new freeways. The worst solution proposed to address the Bay Area-209 commute was by former Congressman Richard Pombo who wanted to run a freeway across the Coastal Range from San Jose to the San Joaquin Valley via Patterson Pass. He argued the one interchange proposed between San Jose and Interstate 5 would not be growth inducing by prohibiting development near it. But it would be growth inducing by making once remote parcels along the ridge conducive to small rural lot development if nothing else. It would also create another “river” for development to follow into the valley.

2). Ban conversions of highways from the east that connect with Highway 99 from being converted into freeways. There is not a single freeway to the east of Highway 99 in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, or Merced counties. Putting in freeways would only make it easier for growth to the east of Highway 99 to be fueled by jobs created in San Jose and the rest of the Bay Area.

This means the 120 Bypass would be never be extended east of Highway 99.

3). Place an even higher priority on ACE and Valley Link development by pushing for ridership numbers triple or quadruple of what is now being projected. That may sound un-doable but not if we implement the next objective.

Any additional new freeway lanes going forward in the 209 will be for the exclusive use 24/7 of express bus systems.  And where there is no space for additional lanes and if there are existing HOV lanes, the HOV lanes will be converted to express bus service use only.

4). Continue to develop — and encourage the use of — local transit options.

5). Set urban limits that will contain growth within ultimate boundaries. This will create market forces that will help direct growth up instead of out and at the very least initially reduce the land that each new housing unit consumes.

6). Resist the urge for more freeways and more freeway lanes. The relief they provide from the Highway 99 slow-motion Congo line, the Interstate 205 parking lot effect, or the 120 Bypass Slinky is fleeting. All it does is to induce not simply more growth but growth that spreads out instead of going up.

In the end all we get is a repeat of everything most fled with the added benefit of spending more time in a car.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.