Freeway closure by flash flood should teach us a lesson

Is it time to diversify the West's transportation options?

 

In February 1980 ten inches of rain fell on the Arizona foothills and mountains, turning the normally trickling Salt River into a 180,000-cubic-feet-per-second torrent as it ran through the Phoenix metropolitan area. Several street bridges were washed out or closed by damage caused by the flood, including the city’s major artery, I-10. The population’s mobility and the city’s economy took a major blow.

To the rescue came the “Sardine Express,” an impromptu commuter train put together to run along the Amtrak tracks. It shuttled an estimated 45,000 passengers between Tempe and downtown Phoenix over 10 days, and gave car-centric Phoenicians a glimpse into what was possible in terms of public transit in a place where it was sorely lacking. Some say the success of the short-lived service helped tilt public favor toward ultimately building today’s light rail, part of which follows the Sardine Express’s route.

Some 25,000 cars per day had to take big detours to get around the I-10 closure.

Three and a half decades later, on July 19, extreme weather again closed I-10, the primary artery linking Los Angeles with Phoenix, this time when a flash flood wiped out a bridge near Desert Center, California. Again, the impact to movement and commerce was severe. More than 25,000 cars had crossed the bridge every day before the washout, according to the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, and more than 10 percent of those were big rigs, hauling goods back and forth. They’d have to find another route, adding five hours or more to the trip. Meanwhile, communities along the impacted stretch of freeway, such as Blythe, California, which had become dependent on passing motorists stopping and staying in hotels or purchasing gas or refreshments, saw business grind to a halt.

In another part of the country, or the world, the shutdown’s impacts might have been lessened by alternative forms of transportation such as, say, a high speed train. And in other times, such as in 1980, when gasoline was expensive, the shutdown might have inspired a creative, less-petroleum-intensive workaround, and woken folks up to the need for ways other than car-cluttered roads to link together communities. But alas, such alternatives don’t exist here in the highway-loving West, and the only solution that was brought up was to build yet another interstate: The proposed I-11 that would link Las Vegas with Phoenix.

When a community’s economy goes down in flames because it’s too dependent upon one industry, such as mining, what do we do? Build another mine? No, we diversify into other types of industry that are not subject to the same volatility as the current one. In much of the West, the economy hinges heavily on transportation, whether it’s to get raw materials out, or food and goods and tourists in. So perhaps we should be thinking about diversifying our modes of transportation in the same way that we do our economies. Instead of widening highways or building new ones, why not build a few rail lines?

Over the past decade or so, several Western cities have taken huge strides in diversifying the transportation options within the metro areas. Denver’s growing FasTracks network is making it possible to live in the city without a car, and has helped fuel one of the nation’s healthiest economies. Phoenix has a 20-mile light rail line that is also growing, spurring a revival not only of Phoenix’s downtown, but also that of Mesa’s, a declining suburb. Salt Lake not only has a downtown light rail, but also a commuter rail linking several cities along the congested Wasatch Front, and Albuquerque and Santa Fe are now linked by commuter rail. For the most part, though, the progress has ended at the metro’s edge.

Amtrak service to Union Station in downtown Phoenix, the nation’s sixth largest city, was cut off in 1996. Since then, someone wanting to take the train to Los Angeles must drive to Maricopa, on the outer edge of the metro’s monstrous sprawl, to catch the Sunset Limited, which runs just three times a week. Or they can take the bus to Flagstaff and catch the daily Southwest Chief, a 15-hour trip from the downtown Phoenix bus stop to L.A.’s Union Station. Residents of other Western metros like Denver and Salt Lake City can, at least, board a once-daily Amtrak train in their city. The ensuing trip, however, is long, often knocked off schedule by the Amtrak’s need to give way to freight trains, and the options are limited. The few rail lines across the Interior West go east and west only; getting from Boise to Phoenix by rail is impossible. Even where service does exist, a train trip in the West may be enjoyable, but is rarely practical.

Imagine, for a moment, a West with a rail network rather than just a smattering of slow lines, even one that provides just a fraction of the coverage of those in, say, Germany or France. One could board a train in Boise in the morning and end up in Phoenix before nightfall. One could hop on a comfortable rail car after work in L.A. and end up in Las Vegas in time to party, without having to battle the I-15 traffic of the kind that ended up at a dead stop in the path of a wildfire a few days before the I-10 washout. And if a bridge on I-10 gets wiped out, folks could travel between Phoenix and L.A. in a few hours. Think of how many lives would be saved (approximately 900 people die per year on Arizona highways, many on I-10) and how much pollution kept out of the air — those 25,000 cars per day on I-10 spew out a lot of exhaust, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

A year or so ago, it appeared as if our long love affair with the car was stagnating. We were driving less and taking more public transit. Total vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. plummeted during the recession and stayed relatively low after the recovery. Transit ridership during that time shot up, especially in places with relatively new light rail lines like Denver and Phoenix. Even Amtrak ridership grew in poorly-served Arizona by 21 percent between 2009 and 2014, while the population grew by just 6 percent. Meanwhile, California started the long process of building high speed rail. It seemed, for a moment, as if some sort of inter-city transportation progress could be made.

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Vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. dropped after the recession, prompting some to say we had reached 'peak car.' But the drop in gasoline prices encouraged driving again.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Then, last summer, oil prices plummeted along with the price of gasoline, and we suddenly started loving our cars again. Vehicle miles traveled shot back up, and are now higher than the pre-recession peak; in May 2015, Westerners drove some 60 billion miles, a 3.2 percent increase from the previous May. Transit ridership has yet to collapse, but it’s not increasing at nearly the rate it was. And the political tide appears to be moving towards austerity to such a degree that there’s not enough money to fix the existing infrastructure — like obsolete highway bridges that get battered by increasingly extreme storms — let alone to build a brand new rail network.

By squeezing both directions of traffic onto a two-lane bridge, Caltrans workers were able to get I-10 open again. Yet surely we can expect to see more and more events like it (Highway 50 between California and Nevada was closed by a wildfire this month, too), and will continue to suffer the consequences, economically and otherwise. Hopefully it won’t take too many such disasters before we can learn something from them.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News.