Tear down the freeway

I-5 is a big roadblock to fixing Sacramento’s waterfront

Craig Segall is on the executive committee of the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

Craig Segall is on the executive committee of the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

Sacramento’s riverfront sucks, because it’s for cars, not people.

Interstate 5 cuts a gash between town and the river, spewing pollution, taking up valuable land and filling the air with the roar of big rigs. Tear it down before it’s too late. Short-sighted city and state officials are planning to sink billions of dollars into dead-end freeways over the next few years. They need to be stopped.

Removing freeways is not a radical idea. It’s brought cities back to life all over the world. San Francisco’s Embarcadero bustles with its freeway gone; so does Portland’s riverfront. Seattle is now following suit. Nor is freeway removal just for fancy big cities: Rust-belt Rochester filled in the freeway trench in its downtown only a few years ago. Blue-collar Milwaukee turned its freeway into a thriving riverfront. The basic idea works anywhere: Replace your roads with houses and parks, and your city will be better.

Where will the cars go? On to surface streets, mostly, slowing down and stopping at businesses. Cities that tear down highways find that traffic mostly disperses into a renewed urban grid and that long-haul trucks can be steered onto existing roads that loop around town.

Imagine: Bridges open to bicycles connecting West Sacramento and North Sacramento to the core in a prosperous whole. People would get to know the rivers without zooming past them.

The city is holding an open competition on ways to revitalize the waterfront, with entries due March 11. But I-5 is a huge roadblock to those ideas.

Won’t tearing it down cost too much? Nope. Freeways take up huge amounts of build-able land that isn’t taxed and cost billions to maintain. Caltrans is proposing $500 million to overhaul Business 80 and another $1.5 billion to rebuild the I-5 bridge over the American River, spending our gas tax dollars to subsidize yet more driving. With that kind of money, we could stop spending on last century’s worst idea and instead remove the freeways, hiring thousands of workers and creating high-value land that could bring even more jobs to the city.

The savings don’t stop there. Highway traffic belches air pollution, raising health costs. And climate pollution subsidized by road building comes at yet more social costs. Experts at the State Smart Transportation Initiative and the Congress for the New Urbanism are clear: Freeway removal is a net plus for city economies.

What about just decking and building over I-5? The city has explored that idea, and it’s better than nothing. But it doesn’t reduce air pollution or the incentive toward sprawl or deal with the above-ground part of the road spoiling the railyards.

Sacramento, itself, once knew better. Our riverfront neighborhoods were among the most densely populated areas of the West Coast, with thriving immigrant communities living in Victorian houses and beautiful old brick buildings. Then we tore them down and put up a freeway and some office buildings.

If we start now, we can have a city for people rather than cars. We can have our rivers again. We can restore our city, just as residents in so many other places have done. We can put people to work and give them new homes. To do it, we need to demand vision from our politicians and organize ourselves. Let’s start now.