The San Jose Mercury News ran my letter to the editor today, Wednesday June 12, 2002, but they titled the 251 word edition I edited down "We need smart housing, not more freeways". Here's my 500 word original submission.

Highway to Hell

Shame on the San Jose Mercury News for running the effusive and overly optimistic forecast of traffic relief for the Bay Area , and on the front page at that [Bottlenecks Unplugged, 6/2/02]. I'm sure similar articles were written when Highway 85 was completed or 280 before it or even 101 replacing the old Bayshore expressway. The problem with the optimism is that it is bound to be short-lived. As the Texas Transportation Institute has shown in its ongoing studies of traffic congestion around the nation, there is no "free way" out of gridlock. In fact, the only sure fire cure for congestion is the equally undesirable recession. No city studied was able to keep up with the traffic demand, and this in the 1990's when government coffers were overflowing and roads could be built or expanded.

It has been shown time and time again, and indeed I dare say it is the experience of any driver lucky enough to actually experience the thrill of the open road, that traffic expands to fill the surface area available.

Indeed, Governor Gray Davis called the Foothill Freeway extension near San Bernardino the "last freeway" just after he cut the ribbon to open it up this year. Even CalTrans in its California Transportation Plan 2025 de-emphasizes road building and concentrates on community building.

And expansion of roadways only serves to encourage developers to build, and then people to move farther from the urban centers. This, in turn, requires the building of entirely new infrastructure and consumes more of our precious farm land and green space. According to the US Census Bureau, "the rate of rural land lost to development in the 1990s was about 2.2 million acres per year." That's the equivalent land area 70 new San Franciscos each year!

Your article alludes to a total of $7.5 billion having been recently committed or spent on new roads. For a state that is short 100,000 housing units per year [SJM 5/8/02], would it not been better to have built perhaps 40,000 housing units in urban areas for the same dollars? 40,000 housing units near transit stops or near jobs so people wouldn't have to drive their cars an hour or two a day? 40,000 units in neighborhoods where people might even walk to work, walk to the store, walk to a restaurant. And maybe in walking actually bump into a friend or neighbor.

It is ironic that your gushing article on road construction came on the same day as the Whitehouse report acknowledging that global warming is primarily the result of man's burning of fossil fuels. The administrations approach appears to be, "Why worry? All we need is bigger air conditioners in our cars." And with such glowing projections as to how bottleneck-free the drive will be, who needs to think about moving closer to work?

In light of all this I find it irresponsible to wax so glowingly about a system that has clearly reached the end of the road. We can continue to view the world through our tinted windshields or we can wake up and smell the exhaust and get down to the hard task of building more housing in town, reconfiguring our cities, and establishing greenbelts to contain sprawl.

Marc Auerbach
Cupertino, CA


Texas Transportation Institute:

Housing Units
I estimated:
$5M / acre for land (about what it is in Cupertino)
50 units per acre (pretty dense)
$150/square foot to build (not including land costs)
600 square feet for the average unit (400 to 800 square feet)
This works out to $190,000 per unit to build including land. Divide by $7.5B to get about 40,000 units.

Housing Shortage:
SJM: Posted on Wed, May. 08, 2002

Gray Davis Remarks and California Transportation Plan 2025,
It's the best I could do, but I did recall the remark.

Sprawl (Site of the US Census Bureau)