William Burg started a wonderful conversation on Facebook about removing Business 80 from B Street to Hwy 50, returning the traffic to surface streets. The post is now up to 115 comments, and still going after two weeks. I believe that you have to be a member of Facebook to view this thread, but don’t need to be friends with William Burg (though you should). I agree with Jared that this topic should be amplified for Sacramento Press.
Some people think that this is crazy thinking, it will never happen. I think it will. Why? Not because it is a good idea, though it is, but because we will not be able to continue to keep these freeways open and in decent condition with future transportation funding. Caltrans and others have just spent or are spending $202 million on Hwy 50, basically just to keep in it usable condition. Not to improve it in any significant way, but just to keep it working. Where is the money going to come from to maintain Hwy 50, Interstate 80, Interstate 5, and Business 80 (Capital City Expressway)?
There is a myth that roads pay for themselves through fuel taxes. Not even close. These taxes only pay for about half of the highway funding, and for local roadway projects, far less than that. The rest comes out of the general fund at the federal, state and local level, which is to say, out of your pocket and out of my pocket.
In the future, we will only be able to spend transportation money on highways that have a high rate of return on investment. A two-lane highway that carries goods has a high rate of return in economic productivity. Yes, as many people have pointed out, freight moving long distances should be moving by rail and not highway, and this trend is evident, but we will still need some highways to move goods. Commuter traffic has a low rate of return on investment, in fact, it has a negative return on investment, it is a subsidy by all of us for commuters. It does not create economic vitality, it just moves property tax and sales tax and fuel tax from one place to another.
So, given that we won’t be able to maintain these freeways in their current configuration, what do we do? We can shrink them back to their transport capacity needs, which in most cases is two lanes each way, and thereby avoid maintaining pavement in the other lanes, but that has all sorts of challenges. How to you cut off the extra lanes, and how do you deal with onramps and off ramps? In the case of bridges, the expense probably doesn’t vary much by how many active lanes you maintain. Probably better in the long run is to just tear down the old freeway completely, and then where a highway is actually justified by the need for transport, to build a new, lower volume, much smaller, less expensive expressway.
In terms of negative impact on Sacramento, Interstate 5 stands above all the rest because it cuts off downtown from old town. It also has fewer crossings than Hwy 50 and Business 80, so it stands as more of a barrier to local use and livability. But it may also be the most difficult to change. In the meanwhile, while figuring out what to do about Interstate 5, we can use the Business 80 teardown as a pilot program.
It should go without saying that the money the state is currently spending, and will try to keep spending, to increase the capacity of our freeways, is money down the drain. We can’t maintain them, and we’ll have to spend a lot of money to shrink them back down to where they ought to be. My solution is “no more lanes, anywhere, ever.”