July 19, 2011

We Survived Carmegeddon. Now What?


It had all the potential of riveting drama.  It was highly publicized.  City leaders and government were in crisis modeThere were a bevy of high-profile celebrities in small roles and cameos.  Order in a major U.S. city hung in the balance. And it had a clever title and a myriad of cross-promotion campaigns.

Fortunate for Los Angeles residents (and maybe unfortunate for 24-hour news outlets),  Carmegeddon, however, didn’t end up living up to the hype. 


Don’t get me wrong.  No doubt, shutting down a major traffic artery during the weekend, in a large city notorious for traffic congestion, poses some serious implications.  Compelling residents in L.A. not to drive seems akin to telling New Yorkers to stop rooting for the Mets (even though their record in recent years has proven fan encouragement is futile--Go Phils!) or banning country music in Nashville.  Driving is an intrinsic part of the “Angeleno” identity.

But the closure of a 10-mile segment of Interstate 405 from Route 101 to Sunset Boulevard caused no real increase in weekend congestion elsewhere in the city.  Mass transit was prepared to accommodate potential increases in ridership (which seemed negligible).  There were no riots or spikes in crime due to the project.  Work on the road was even completed more than 17 hours ahead of schedule, allowing traffic to resume a full day in advance of the city’s projections.

The LA Times' videographer Jeff Amlote shot the entertaining video below, set to "Flight of the Bumblebee", that documents the entire weekend project (as a DC resident, my hope is that a rep for WMATA will refer to this video as a model for how to correctly plan and execute a maintenance project).


Aside from confirming that people can endure staying home for the weekend--even in LA--without breaking into a lawless frenzy, what does this prove?  It proves that policymakers and various stakeholders can cooperate to get the public through even the most daunting infrastructure initiatives. 

Although cooperation may have become a dirty word in politics lately, national road improvement is one political football no one can afford to lose over the fence.  According to the Federal Highway Administration’s most recent 2009 figures, drivers, accounting for over 60% of our country’s total population, travel approximately 2.9 trillion miles on our nation’s roads annually. 

Yet, the deteriorating state of our roads is costing us our time, money, and ultimately our health.  A report by the Road Information Program estimated Americans spend about 4.8 billion hours and $78.2 billion a year (time and fuel costs) stuck in traffic.  Overall, poor roadway conditions cost the average driver over $800 annually in wasted time, fuel, additional vehicle repairs, and maintenance, and account for about one-third of traffic deaths each year. 


Not surprisingly, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our nation’s roads a grade of D- in its latest Report Card for America's Infrastructure, and estimated our 5-year need for national road and bridge repair to be $930 billion--more than a two-fold increase of current federal spending.

Here’s the silver lining: greater investment in our highways directly addresses unemployment and the environment—two major issues, for lawmakers, which consistently elicit more bickering than action.  The Federal Highway Administration estimates that each $1 billion in federal funds spent on highway projects creates about 28,000 jobs annually--the majority of which, are in industries other than construction.  

In Los Angeles, Carmegeddon generated not only great press, but also 200 jobs over the weekend, as reported by Bill Boyarsky of LA Observed.  The larger initiative to enhance Interstate 405 is estimated to employ about 18,000 workers. 

By focusing on our highway needs, we can also dispense with the interminable debate over whether heat indexes of 115 in Minnesota or unprecedented tornado killing sprees have anything to do with our current energy practices, and for once, both climate deniers and the rest of us that live in reality can get behind measures that promote energy efficiency and environmental stewardship. 

Americans waste about 3.9 billion gallons of fuel due to inefficient road conditions.  To put that figure into perspective, the amount of gas we burn simply waiting in traffic is roughly equivalent to the fuel potential of 40 Deepwater Horizon oil spills, or one-quarter of the fuel the U.S. stores for emergencies within the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  Clearly, highway investments that simply lower traffic congestion could reap lasting benefits in regards to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions—in addition to our individual sanity.

Ranked as one of the most congested cities in the country, and notorious for its smog, Los Angeles reflects the challenges that ailing highway infrastructure pose for our urban areas, in particular, but our nation as well.  Yet, Los Angeles proved last weekend that even they could do big things to their roads in short order.

With approximately 36% of urban highways congested and 32% of major roads in disrepair, we can only hope Carmegeddon is a national blockbuster that hits cities and towns across the country.