California Autobahn: Bill proposes to cut emissions by adding fast lanes

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Freeway, Los Angeles, 2009 (photo by Myriam Thyes via Wikimedia)

Freeway, Los Angeles, 2009 (photo by Myriam Thyes via Wikimedia)

In the wake of the debate over California’s complicated, delayed, and over-budget Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project, a bill introduced to the California State Senate last week comes up with a simpler solution: just add more freeway lanes, and get rid of the speed limit entirely in those new lanes.

The bill, SB 319, is authored by California State Senator John Moorlach, a Republican from Orange County and a longtime opponent of the high-speed rail project. In a background page, Moorlach points to the relatively low accident rate on Germany’s Autobahn system—which is of course the product of strict lane discipline, thorough driver education, and better roadway conditions, among many other factors.

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The highways that the bill is proposing to expand run through California’s central valley, covering stretches of more than 200 miles each on I-5 and CA-99, currently two or three lanes in each direction. Both highways are known for occasional snags and slowdowns for weekend events and peak travel times.

“If Sacramento is serious about allowing Californians to travel between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and High-Speed Rail will take too long to build, let's construct four additional lanes with no maximum speed limit to provide for high speed on a safe road,” stated Moorlach in a press release.

Sound safety, some emissions leaps

Moorlach points to the safety record of the German Autobahn. A fact sheet on the bill says: “According to a World Health Organization study, estimated road traffic deaths per 100,000 people is 4.1 in Germany, while 12.4 in the United States. Bringing this practice to California would replace the need for a high-speed rail that all could use.”

The project, he claims, will result in lower greenhouse-gas emissions due to less idling. “If we do not expand means of travel for Californians, traffic congestion will increase, along with GHGs.”

What the bill, and the press release leave out is that Germany's autobahns have only a few unrestricted zones left, in large part out of such emissions concerns. And according to the German Federal Environmental Agency, as cited by Bloomberg, cutting existing unrestricted zones to 75 mph (120 km/h) would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a further 9 percent per year in the country.

On the other hand, a widely cited paper by German researcher Michael Schreckenberg notes that only 12 percent of all emissions are due to traffic congestion. Although American driving styles vary, it would be a wild stretch to assume that letting two lanes of drivers go as fast as they want would lower pollution over occasional congestion.

Differentials and traffic waves

Schreckenberg is an authority on the idea of “traffic waves,” and the factors that can lead to freeway congestion. As he told me in 2017, as traffic volume rises, it’s speed differentials that cause congestion, through sudden, unplanned brake applications.

Traffic

Traffic

On-ramps and exits contribute to that, but if one or two lanes are allowed to move much faster than others, in a chronically congested section of highway, there will constantly be drivers trying to move in and out of the fast lane, creating these sudden speed differentials—and waves of congestion.

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As Germany has learned on its most congested stretches of Autobahn, that speed differential not only makes the roadways more dangerous but because of the traffic waves decreases their traffic throughput, in terms of number of cars. Counterintuitively, imposing a lower speed limit (often through variable speed limit technology) eases congestion—because there are fewer drivers trying to go faster, then hitting the brakes, creating those waves.

While Moorlach is correct about the ills of idling, the types of vehicles that California is requiring more of in the future—electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, hybrids, and even just newer gasoline models with engine stop/start—don’t have those same issues.

From the carbon-compliance piggy bank

The bill proposes “using existing cap and trade revenues” in the state to fund the massive highway expansion, which doesn’t yet have a price. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 requires funds collected by the Air Resource Board to go into a Greenhouse Gas Reduction fund, 25 percent of which would go toward the state’s high-speed rail project.

Lawmakers might not see those funds in either case, and the proposal lands in the middle of a war of words between Washington, D.C., and Sacramento.

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California governor Gavin Newsom said last week that the project needed to be rethought. Some outlets had misreported that statement as meaning the project was completely canceled. President Trump then called the rail project “a ‘green’ disaster,” and said that California owes the federal government $3.5 billion—which prompted the California governor to make clear that it is building high-speed rail: “This is CA’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back. The train is leaving the station — better get on board!”

Since then, Trump has called the rail project “hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!” Further, the federal Department of Transportation announced that it will cancel $929 million in grant funds and has said that it was “actively exploring every legal option” to get back a $2.5 billion grant, according to the LA Times.

Senator Moorlach’s office told Green Car Reports that it is still putting together its projections for the GHG emissions reduction based on various studies, and that it does not expect vehicle traffic volume to rise.

With all the egos involved in the debate at this point—and the lack of any supporting analysis here—it may take some time for the air to clear before any such proposal on how to get quickly from LA to SF is taken seriously.

 
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