Why would Orange County commuters care about a tunnel being debated 50 miles away in Pasadena?
For the past 30 years, the biggest hole in the Southern California freeway network has been the I-710’s missing link. Interstate 710 connects the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to distribution centers throughout the region, but it abruptly ends in Alhambra, diverting 100,000 cars a day onto surface streets.
The missing I-710 link causes many long-distance truckers to seek out alternative routes. A trucker might choose to take the 57 to I-5 to skip the headaches that come with the I-210 and I-710. The current lack of capacity in Pasadena adds to Orange County’s congestion on I-5 in Santa Ana and brings excess truck traffic to the 91. Building the proposed tunnel in Pasadena would help the 57, I-5 and the 91, improving Orange County’s travel times.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s busiest, are key to the world economy. By 2020, truck traffic across Southern California is expected to grow by 80 percent compared with 1995. This level of shipping traffic will overwhelm Southern California’s highways if the region doesn’t make strategic highway investments.
Orange County transportation agencies are doing their part, already adding new lanes to I-5 and I-405 to prepare for the truck traffic. But the I-710 tunnel is an example of why it is so important to think of Southern California’s freeways as an interconnected network. A bottleneck on one freeway an hour away can have far-reaching negative consequences on other highways and surface streets. Southern California’s worst traffic bottlenecks cause time delays, hinder goods movement, increase prices for everything from strawberries to tires, and cost the regional economy $10.8 billion a year just in wasted time and fuel.
As part of the I-710 tunnel proposal, Caltrans is also looking to incorporate mass transit and transportation management systems improvements to regional mobility. Southern California already invests in transportation system management but could make its methods more dynamic.
For example, instead of freeway signs showing traffic delays in minutes, new intelligent transportation signs can suggest alternative routes for drivers – the same way our phone apps do. And better traffic-signal synchronization can still make significant improvements in travel times. The Orange County Transportation Authority recently awarded funding for new signal synchronization projects in Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Fullerton and Anaheim. Better signal timing is a cost-effective tool that reduces traffic jams and the numbers of stops drivers have to make.
Similarly, quality bus upgrades can better connect residences and businesses cost-effectively. Several of the Orange County Transportation Authority’s rapid transit bus routes have helped connect Orange County residents to downtown Los Angeles with service from Fullerton and Huntington Beach while other Express routes link to Chino, Diamond Bar and Riverside. San Bernardino’s rapid bus routes connect with Orange County’s bus routes in Fullerton, a move toward seamless intercounty transit service. Ideally, the Express bus and bus rapid transit networks will continue to grow and link Southern California’s major cities, employers and neighborhoods.
Ultimately though, the region’s highways will continue to carry the vast majority of goods and people. And the proposed I-710 tunnel project is needed to relieve a portion of the congestion that plagues Southern California and limits economic growth. Southern Californians need to view highways as networks capable of increasing job opportunities and growing economies.
Workers and businesses in Orange County and Riverside are directly impacted by what happens in Pasadena and Long Beach. The I-710 tunnel may seem like a far-off project in another area, but it is important to Orange County and all of Southern California.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.