Commentary: Kill the Projects, Break up Caltrans and Partner Agencies that Refuse to Stop Widening
Lawmakers, advocates, and commissioners are just starting to get serious about stopping California's asphalt addiction. But they have to get more radical to succeed.
4:21 PM PST on January 25, 2024
The California Transportation Commission tapped the brakes, at least for the moment, on the I-15 widening. Advocates are refusing to back a regional transit-funding measure that includes freeway widening. And Scott Wiener's new bill includes provisions to try and stop Caltrans from continuing to expand capacity on city roads it controls at the detriment of anyone not in a car.
All of which represents a tiny glimmer of hope that progressively minded commissioners and politicos are finally starting to, maybe, a little bit, put their proverbial feet down on the region's continued widening fixation.
Unfortunately, Caltrans and the county transportation agencies they partner with are still planning and building retrograde, deceitfully realized widening projects throughout the Bay Area.
Take, for example, the 'I-880/Broadway-Jackson Interchange Improvement Project,' an ill-conceived plan to effectively turn the Posey Tube into an elongated off-ramp/feeder freeway connecting Alameda motorists directly to the Nimitz Freeway. Readers may be more familiar with its new moniker, picked to deceive people that this is something other than just another freeway widening: the Oakland Alameda Access Project.
The Posey Tube opened in 1928 as a two-way traffic tunnel, designed as part of the Oakland street network. It included an art-deco ventilation building and decorative pillars at the entrance. Then the freeway builders came in the 1950s and built the Nimitz Freeway, cutting off Oakland from its waterfront and covering the Posey entrance (see lead image taken from the ventilation building). The tunnel portal is now part of the dark, foreboding passageways under I-880 between Oakland and Jack London Square (JLS).
The re-framed interchange project was sold by Caltrans and the Alameda County Transportation Commission (CTC) as a way to reduce some of the "barrier effect" of the freeway between downtown Oakland and JLS. But it will do nothing of the sort. The real goal is and always was to turn the Posey Tube into a freeway ramp.
That's behind why the Jack London Business Improvement District's Savlan Hauser reached out to Streetsblog and others to express her frustration with the team running the project. In an email, she accused the Alameda CTC staff and the Parsons Engineering design team of giving "pitiful responses to many of our joint Jack London/Chinatown/Bike & Ped concerns about the 150+ million dollar project that is supposed to be an improvement in multimodal / neighborhood connectivity between Alameda and Oakland and us, its downtown neighborhoods."
Savlan and her team have been demanding that the project include:
- Pedestrian improvements including lighting and curb cuts at key connection points like Webster
- Wayfinding signage that points to our respective neighborhoods, as well as Amtrak/Ferry
- Proactive mitigations for construction disruption, the disruption will be massive for our merchants, residents, visitors, workers
"These asks are basic, relatively cheap, and incredibly important," she wrote.
"The design team went out late last week again to reexamine crosswalk opportunities in these areas and have agreed to circle back with Savlan and others in a few weeks after they have findings and can consult with Caltrans and the engineers," wrote Alameda CTC Chair John Bauters, in an email to Streetsblog written Tuesday.
Bauters is, of course, as progressive as they come in the realm of safe and livable streets. But everybody has to wake up and smell the asphalt about the bureaucrats at these agencies. Given the history of this project, it should be clear that the "design team" is simply going through the motions, saying whatever they think people want to hear to tick legally required boxes, get this thing under construction, and get paychecks signed.
How can I say this with such certainty? It's because every time I see the updated plans they fail to reflect the legitimate concerns brought up by advocates. In many ways, the plans keep getting worse for cyclists and pedestrians. And the planners just lie in meetings about their intentions.
For example, the project planners continually claim that they are adding bike lanes and improving bike connectivity. Caltrans is requiring that the catwalks in the tubes undergo improvements to be better able to evacuate stuck motorists in an emergency. So the project team continues to lie and say the catwalks represent a new bike route (see the existing Posey Tube catwalk for why that obviously isn't the case). Advocates from Bike Walk Alameda and Bike East Bay have repeatedly told the project managers that the dangerous, narrow, insufferably loud, and polluted catwalks are not viable bike routes. And yet the team continues to call this a bike lane and continues to gaslight that this is somehow a multimodal aspect of the project.
When I've challenged their engineers about this directly at public meetings, they just pretend it's the first time they've heard that the catwalks in the tubes are essentially unusable for cyclists and pedestrians. In fact, I've yet to meet a manager of this project who's walked or biked in the Posey Tube themselves.
There are other "bike lanes" planned. Designs include a two-way cycle lane on 6th Street. But 6th Street will become essentially a new off-ramp of the freeway since part of the project is to widen and lengthen the Oak Street off-ramp that feeds into it. This nonsensical "cycle track" will have no protection and will double as a breakdown lane (see adjacent image from an OAAP document dated January 2024).
This is just like the bogus bike lanes on the I-880 29th and 23rd Avenue Overcrossings project in Jingletown, done by the same agencies (see image below) that painted little green boxes across off-ramps of screaming, high-speed traffic and called it "multimodal."
The engineers also intend to remove a sidewalk completely where Jackson goes under the freeway to make room for their new ramp between the Posey Tube and the freeway. The project team responds that it "...will remove freeway-bound traffic off of local roadways. The resulting decrease in traffic congestion, combined with the proposed pedestrian safety improvements, will reduce vehicle-pedestrian conflicts at key intersections."
That's fetid nonsense. Yes, the Broadway off-ramp elevated structure will be removed, but a lengthened and widened 6th Street, merged with the Oak Street off-ramp, will take its place, generating more traffic and dumping it into local streets. There won't be any "decrease in traffic congestion." In fact, the environmental documents are filled with "Level of Service" justifications for the project. This is despite the insistence of engineers on the project that reducing "Vehicle Miles Traveled" was the guide for the design.
This is just one ill-begotten freeway project. There are others in one phase or another of planning or construction throughout the Bay Area.
There's simply no stopping Caltrans and its partner agencies at the county level until they are legislatively prohibited from building new freeway capacity (even under the ruse of seismic retrofits, HOV lanes, auxiliary lanes, and all the other nonsensical excuses and gaslighting they use). Expecting retrograde traffic engineers to act in good faith to build safe, truly multimodal projects out of concern for the environment or people who walk and roll is naive and misguided.
It's going to take some pretty radical actions. Legislation is required to break up some county agencies and blacklist consultants, staff, and execs who, for example, fired Jeanie Ward-Waller, the Caltrans official who had the temerity to suggest the agency was undermining the state's own climate goals.
But first lawmakers simply have to find a way to kill these projects, one by one. They can start by ending the I-880/Broadway-Jackson Interchange Improvement Project project. We can bemoan the sunk costs of these projects all we want, but it's pennies on the dollar compared to how much harm they cause when built.
It's a crazy irony that the Feds are talking about helping to fund the removal of I-980 at the same time a project for more widening continues just a few blocks away. If we want to heal the wounds of the freeway-building age, first we have to stop making things worse.
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