Did you hear about the freeway that ate the firetruck? It’s no joke.
The big storm that rolled through on Feb. 17 had most of us nervously eying the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam. But the torrential rains have also played havoc with the roads, with sinkholes and potholes the size of Volkswagens appearing at alarming rates up and down the state.
And so San Bernardino County firefighters watched helplessly the other Friday night as one of their engines tumbled off the side of Interstate 15 in Southern California. They were on scene to assist with a big rig that the freeway had already claimed. I-15, of course, is the main thoroughfare between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
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About 90 miles to the southwest in the Los Angeles suburb of Studio City, a 20-foot sinkhole appeared on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, taking two cars and injuring one driver.
This wasn’t the first time recently that the roads have opened up and pitilessly taken a few cars in the process. In July 2015, a bridge along Interstate 10 between Palm Springs and the Arizona state line suddenly collapsed and partly washed away during a freak storm. An investigation later found that the bridge had at least four crucial design flaws that led to its failure.
No doubt about it: Our roads are terrible. Everyone knows this. Crawling or idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic every day is a fact of life for millions of commuters. A recent study by a private transportation analytics firm ranked L.A. traffic as the worst in the world. (Although, in fairness, the study didn’t include China.)
It’s also the case that California’s roads and highways are crumbling faster than work crews can repair them. Municipal road workers cannot patch and fill quickly enough, even when the weather is congenial.
Fun fact: Caltrans in 2015 received 4,106 claims from motorists for pothole damage. The agency paid just 423 of them. Why so few? Because most of the responsibility falls to cities, which lack the manpower and the money to keep up with demand. For a city like L.A., the tab will run into the hundreds of millions, if not billions.
And statewide? It’s a $500 billion problem. Easily.
Just in terms of repairs alone, the state has a 10-year, $296 billion backlog. State officials earlier this month submitted a $100 billion request to the federal government for help with a grab-bag of 51 projects that include not only roadwork and bridge repair, but also public transit, levees, water storage and recycling, and sundry infrastructure needs.
How to pay for all that? Well, the Democrats predictably would like to raise taxes. One proposal by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would raise the gas tax yet again by 12 cents per gallon and the gasoline sales tax by 4 percent. He also wants to impose a $100 fee – let’s call it a “smug-alert tax” – on zero-emission vehicles.
Not that anyone is listening, but Republicans point out – with justice – that California already has the highest gasoline levies in the country and additional taxes would be (ahem) regressive.
Assembly GOP leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley and Assemblyman Vince Fong of Bakersfield took to these pages recently to make a pitch for spending money the state already has. Their plan would redirect another $5.6 billion a year in taxes and fees to major transportation projects, with about 30 percent devoted to new capacity.
Not bad. Sensible even. So it will probably go nowhere.
Our transportation planners say the problem with new capacity is that if you build it, the drivers will come. It’s true. Studies show that new capacity fills up fast. And we can’t very well have that, now can we?
This much is obvious: Most Californians will not readily give up the freedom that private automobile ownership affords. We’re simply not built like New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, which have reasonably effective public transit systems (and nevertheless where the streets and expressways remain thronged with cars).
And yet just about every reputable study shows that the demand for driving in the Golden State will continue to rise, while road capacity will remain stubbornly flat.
That would seem to suggest the answer is to make the most of existing capacity. And there is one promising way of doing exactly that: autonomous – or driverless – cars.
Yet state regulators are stubbornly resisting that, too.
The Department of Motor Vehicles spent most of the past two years looking for ways to prevent Google and other innovators from putting driverless vehicles on the roads. Among the innovation-killing rules the DMV debated imposing include a ban on private-ownership of autonomous cars.
The stupidity and shortsightedness of this posture cannot be overstated.
Along with the sheer convenience and productivity gains that would come with driverless technology, autonomous cars would simply make better use of our constrained capacity.
Instead of idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, vehicles would communicate with each other to form “car trains.” Imagine dozens of vehicles inches or centimeters apart from each other zooming down the freeways.
Sounds scary? Sure – if you’re relying exclusively on human judgment about when to stop and go, or where to exit and merge. But the concept was first proven over 20 years ago along a stretch of highway just north of San Diego. We have the technology. You may be driving around with it right now. Those nifty cameras and automatic braking sensors will one day allow for smooth, safe, speedy and hands-free transitions in and out of traffic.
Look, all of this is essential. Infrastructure really is an investment in the future. It’s going to cost money to get California’s transportation system up to snuff, pothole and sinkhole free. And it’s going to cost even more money to improve upon the system we’ve got. A high-speed rail system isn’t going to solve our problem.
The fact remains that the path to future prosperity cannot be paved only with good intentions. It will be built on steel and concrete and silicon. That is, of course, if California’s regulators can get out of the way.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness (www.amgreatness.com). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.