HOV wars

Caltrans’ citizen advisory panel grapples with car-pool lanes and confidentiality agreements

Nancy Finch says her committee’s mandate is a Catch-22.

Nancy Finch says her committee’s mandate is a Catch-22.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Despite some doubt as to whether Sacramento actually can reap ecological benefits from car-pool lanes, Caltrans is moving forward with a plan to spend $5 million studying the environmental pluses and minuses of adding a 12-mile stretch along Highway 50.

To help bring the public on board, the state transportation agency took the unusual step of creating a voluntary advisory committee, made up of Sacramento residents and interest groups. The committee is considering measures that could curb the negative effects of adding east- and west-bound high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes from downtown Sacramento to Sunrise Boulevard—lanes that would be reserved for van pools, automobiles carrying at least two people, commuter buses and electric vehicles.

But so far, both the project and the 18-person advisory committee have had bumpy rides.

Some committee members are concerned that they’re being asked to comment on a project that is, as yet, undefined. “It is very difficult to develop mitigation measures without knowing what needs to be mitigated,” said Roger Levy, who represents No Way LA!, a neighborhood association. “Currently, there is no technical project description, no study or modeling of traffic flows or counts, and no map of alternative ramps at the proposed project terminus.”

Making matters worse, the volunteer members were asked earlier this year by Caltrans’ meeting facilitator to sign a form stating they would not talk to the press. Levy, noting he has sat on several community committees and has never been asked to sign a statement limiting his freedom of speech, was among those who refused to sign the pledge.

Ann Kohl, from the transportation-and-air-quality committee of the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS), called the request “highly unusual.” Kohl, a longtime community activist who is not on the advisory committee, fired off an e-mail to the facilitator, in which she said the pledge would “hinder the effectiveness of the committee’s work in getting the information out.”

Cheryl Sullivan, the facilitator hired by Caltrans, subsequently tried to defuse the situation by saying that no committee member had been pressured to sign the pledge and that meetings were open to the public. “The purpose of the statement was to ensure that individual differences are discussed, clarified and solved within the [advisory committee] and that individuals do not use the press as their forum,” she wrote in a mid-April e-mail.

Further complicating the panel’s mission is the fact that some, including a number of members of the Sacramento City Council, have serious concerns about a plan for easing gridlock that ultimately would cost $100 million.

The project has it roots in a 1990 study by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), which recommended the installation of a car-pool lane between downtown Sacramento and Shingle Springs in El Dorado County. The project was included in SACOG’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan for 2025. The city and county of Sacramento are also partners in the project, but in July 2001, the Sacramento City Council voted 8-1 against funding a Highway 50 car-pool-lane study. Subsequently, however, SACOG backed it.

Though some of his fellow councilmembers went on to support the measure, Dave Jones still opposes funding the analysis. He points to a study from the University of California, Davis, that influenced the original vote. The study, by the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy, concluded that car-pool lanes in the Sacramento region do not decrease traffic congestion or smog.

“The analysis showed that HOV lanes allow people to live farther from work and consequently result in as much, if not more, air pollution,” said Jones, who believes spending $5 million on another study is “a colossal waste of time.” The money, he said, would be far better spent filling potholes and addressing the area’s many other transportation problems.

Last fall, Caltrans sought out community representatives to provide feedback about the scope of the environmental documentation, which will be required if car-pool lanes are added. The only permissible way for Caltrans to widen the freeway is via an HOV lane because of air-quality problems in the area. If the project were to go forward, it would be funded by a variety of federal, state, regional and city sources.

The community advisory committee, made up of members representing a variety of interests, was formed earlier this year. Its stated purpose is to “serve as the voice of the community” regarding the Highway 50 HOV lanes and enhancements. The participants’ task is specifically to suggest non-technical means to make the project more appealing. Those can include a range of proposals, from landscaping to adding bike lanes to streets in the vicinity of the on- and offramps.

There have been five monthly meetings so far, and the last one will be held this November. But at this point, the committee members still do not know what the project parameters will be. Neither the locations of potential car-pool-lane exit ramps nor the ending and starting points of the lanes in downtown Sacramento have been determined. Members of neighborhood associations are concerned the extra lanes and offramps will increase traffic congestion and worsen air quality in the communities near the exits. They also worry that pouring more concrete to move more cars will create barriers and increase risks to pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled. Developing effective mitigation and enhancement measures requires that the committee know the project specifics, they say.

“It is a Catch-22,” said Nancy Finch, who represents ECOS on the committee. She gave Caltrans credit for soliciting public feedback early in the game but added that the agency “does not have answers to our questions.”

The agency defended its move to involve the public at the exploratory stage of the project. Though neither Caltrans’ project manager nor its facilitators were allowed to talk to SN&R, Jody Lonergan, Caltrans’ district director for the Sacramento region and surrounding counties, told SN&R the strategy was aimed at having the volunteers help define the project. “Folks along the corridor have a better idea of what they want, and we don’t think they want Caltrans to say what that is.” She added the agency does not “have a preconceived idea of what enhancements should be included.”

The agency advocates car-pool lanes as a cost-effective measure for increasing mobility. “HOV lanes look emptier but carry more people and are cost-effective,” Lonergan said.

Levy is skeptical, saying his and other community groups were contacted two years ago about feedback on the proposal. He wonders why project specifics have not been developed. He, Finch and others fear the agency may be holding the meetings for the sole purpose of satisfying the legal public-input requirement. Like Jones, Levy points to studies that refute the benefits of car-pool corridors.

But committee member Jim Behrmann, who represents the American Lung Association and Walk Sacramento, sees Caltrans’ efforts in a more positive light. “It is an honest effort to get citizen input,” he said. He agreed the advisory committee was “somewhat unfocused” but said that was the nature of community advisory committees in general. For him, the issue boils down to how the project’s “success” is defined. If it is according to Caltrans’ criteria, “which is to increase the ability of the corridor to move people from one point to another, then HOV lanes are a success,” he said. He welcomed the debate about the pros and cons of HOV lanes but continues to believe that they encourage car pooling and the use of commuter buses.

Still, others see car-pool lanes as little more than a bandage approach that does not tackle the issue of there being too many cars on the road, or the accompanying pollution and noise, decline in property values near the ramps, and infringement on those not using a car. ECOS and No Way LA! representatives said the approach fails to address the need to reform regional land-use policies in ways that encourage the use of light rail, commuter buses and other alternatives.

One way in which the panel does appear to have consensus is the belief that more will be needed to resolve the ever-worsening traffic problems and air pollution in the region, regardless of one’s position on HOV lanes.

Said Behrmann, "It all comes back to the ills of individual automobile use."