"Whenever you build or widen a road," says my Caltrans informant Joe Doe (not his real name), "it fills up and gets congested." I ask how long the state's road experts have known this fact and gone ahead building and widening anyway. "Oh, it's been known for a long time, actually," Doe, whose 30-plus agency years include both the maintenance and engineering departments at Caltrans, explains. "It's a fact that dates clear back to when the Romans built roads for chariots." If predictable road capacity failure predates the planned widening of the Marin-Sonoma Narrows by 2,500 years, then perhaps David Schonbrunn's self-described effort to move Caltrans "into the present century" may be timely.
Head of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund in San Rafael, Schonbrunn filed a lawsuit on Aug. 26 against Caltrans for an inadequate environmental impact report. An EIR is supposed to take into account the pressures a planned project will have on the environment; Schonbrunn's group claims that the EIR for widening the Marin-Sonoma Narrows did not study the project's climate-change impacts. It is estimated that Caltrans' $745 million proposal to add 16 miles of high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes between Novato and Petaluma will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 27 percent. But the EIR allegedly does not contain an analysis of the impacts that will result from that increase. In the context of climate-protective legislation, including AB 32, which calls to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, critics think Caltrans might have left something out.
According to Schonbrunn, in the 1990s the Sonoma-Marin Multimodal Land Use and Transportation Study (often referred to more simply as the Calthorpe Study) resolved that more lanes were not the answer to traffic problems, and did not recommend widening the highway but instead installing a train system.
"The Caltrans EIR lied on this point when it said there's no inconsistency between the Calthorpe study and this project," Schonbrunn charges. "When the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors went to approve the transportation plan that came out of the study, it was going to be the train and HOV lanes except in the Narrows, but then paving contractor Ghilotti sent a mess of his workers to the hearing with big signs saying 'Three Lanes All the Way.' So this project arose not as a result of any analytic study but purely motivated by self-interests. Most people don't know that."
Sonoma County Transportation Authority director Suzanne Smith says the project was the outcome of a public vote. "When two-thirds of voters approved Measure M in 2004," Smith says, "they approved a package of transportation projects. And last year Sonoma and Marin voters approved the Smart Train." As to whether adding extra lanes in the Narrows is a good idea, Smith responds, "We're very committed to doing this project, and I think the public expects it to be delivered." Smith defends the EIR for the project, explaining that it is a joint effort of her agency, Caltrans and the transportation authority of Marin. "We feel strongly that the document meets all the requirements of the [California Environmental Quality Act]."
Because other courts have determined that it is a required analysis, Schonbrunn's lawsuit aims to get Caltrans to release its greenhouse gas (GHG) emission-analysis protocol and apply it to this project. "This is a case of statewide significance with enormous policy implications," Schonbrunn says. "Caltrans lost a case in Sacramento with exactly the same fact pattern. Now they're over a year late in fulfilling their commitment to issue a greenhouse-gas emissions-analysis protocol, which is part of their climate-action program. Building highways is a major factor in increasing GHG emissions, and yet Caltrans won't acknowledge this."
If more roads bring more congestion, and more congestion brings more greenhouse gas, and more greenhouse gas raise the planet's temperature, it does seem obvious—vote or no vote—that continued road expansion will not solve either our travel or climate problems. I'm no Caltrans engineer, but having driven the Marin-Sonoma Narrows since Gov. Brown was dating Linda Ronstadt, I've observed that the Romans were right: expand the roads and you expand the traffic.