Merge Mash Madness, Part 1: The Mess

by Carolyn Chase
Aoril 21, 2002


L aHave you ever been to a presentation where well-meaning people are telling you that everything is going to be just fine while every instinct is telling you that is definitely not the case?

    This happened to me recently at a Caltrans/San Diego Association of Governments’ presentation to the San Diego TeleCom Council – a high-test group if ever there was one – when it comes to understanding network design and bottlenecks.

    The presentation was on what should be a high-test topic: how will the construction of the new "bypass" lanes at the 5/805 merge impact already out-of-control traffic through the merge. And what is the eventual capacity-nirvana of this costly (current estimate is $180 million) project? What is the traffic management plan to deal with construction-related congestion?

    The project is to add between 2-4 lanes outside of the existing lanes that would allow 805 northbound traffic to SR56 east to flow past the parking lot of the merge. In the other direction, 5 south travelers wanting to go 805 South could "bypass" southbound 5 congestion via the new lanes that begin and end around SR56 and start on 805 just south of the merge.

    Caltrans District Director Pedro Orso Delgado touted the fact that the construction contract came in at less (9%) than the Caltrans estimate, stating, "this funding will be available to help deal with construction related congestion."

    The smart question from the audience was: Why are you focusing so much attention on the merge when the problem is really to the north? What’s the schedule for doing something about that?

    Caltrans Answer: we're studying that.

    The network builders in that room did not need to study it. The conclusions are obvious. The bottleneck will remain and more traffic will back up behind it. We are going to get continue to get screwed by the system.

    Like buying a bigger expando-belt - this "fix" will expand the size of the merge into an even bigger parking lot and greatly increase travel times through the merge because they won't be able to go north any faster anyway. Those who maybe can escape to SR56 face the unfortunate prospect of having the bypass lanes filled up by trucks backed-up behind another I-5, merge point.

    I asked the Caltrans project manager if they had modeled the traffic flowing through this area to see how this project or other scenarios would impact congestion. The answer was, "No. That’s too expensive and would take a long time."

    Aside from the fact that other sources at Caltrans say that they have modeled it – and some modeling would be a requirement of the EIR – the attitude of this project manager was not lost on me.

    His response seems to be the organizing motto of regional transportation agencies: everything is too expensive and takes a long time. I sensed NO urgency that there is a daily disaster out there – nor any commitment to properly deal with traffic or transit integration during the construction.

    Some historical perspective on really large, risky transportation construction projects is in order.

    Work on the Union Pacific end of what would become a transcontinental railroad didn't begin until December of 1863, and it could scarcely have begun under worse conditions. National interest and resources were all tied up in the Civil War. But even at that, it took a mere five-and-a-half years (Dec 1863 to May 69) to build hundreds of miles of track through wilderness and some of the most formidable geographic obstacles known to engineers, using severely limited and dangerous technology.

    FLASH forward to the modern age of efficiency and technological wonder we think today is.

    This expansion of the merge, which is merely to add a few lanes for less than a mile, is projected to take 3 YEARS on a "pushed timeline." Local rail experts are proposing that it will take them seven years to design and build a mere six miles of track in an existing flat right-of-way.

    What's wrong with this picture? Even if we don't quibble about the price (conscripted labor conditions being what they were in the 19th century), what can justify the extended timeline?

    Traffic is no accident. Does anyone really think there is anyone holding the San Diego Association of Governments’ –much less Caltrans - accountable? Look around. We are drowning in traffic from a system that is completely unaccountable for producing a mix of good projects on time, on a budget.

    There is a daily disaster on our freeways and planners are forecasting more. But there was no outrage on the part of anyone at this meeting. The overly smart questions from the audience were cut off due to time.

    What is Caltrans/SANDAG plan to deal with construction-related traffic?

    Every major construction project is required to have a "Traffic Management Plan" to mitigate construction-related traffic.

    This TMP consists of 4 components:

  1. Public Information – basically telling us to stay away
  2. Motorist Information – "real time!" – basically telling us to stay away
  3. Incident Management – "real time!" – tow trucks will be on-call to get stuck in traffic trying to get to incidents
  4. Construction Management – a no brainer, like most of the above.

    Why are there no "Transportation Demand Management" measures – and what about funding transit alternatives? So-called TDMs are pretty much the cheapest and most practical way in the short term to deal with congestion: by moving and reducing and consolidating trips. I received one of the best bureaucratic answers ever encountered, "Because they aren’t in the Project Study Report and we can’t do anything that’s not in the PSR … TDMs are new to Caltrans and there is no funding for them in the Traffic Management Plan."

    But if you see the value in them, why can’t you add them to the Plan? "We couldn’t go back for more money. The City and SANDAG are going to have to come up with the money."

    They have gone back at least three times for more money for this project. What about the money you just saved from the construction estimate – and that your Director stated could now be available? I would have to speak to the Director about that. As far as the project manager knew, those funds would not be available. Calls to the Director’s office went unreturned.

    Budgeted at $3 million over the 5-year construction timeline, there appears to be no substantive support for the kind of Olympic traffic challenge before us. When I asked for a copy of the plan I was told the only thing that exists was the Powerpoint presentation for this meeting. Other sources at Caltrans tell me that there is a plan – just not a very good one.

    Next time: what’s the opportunity?