Check-List Planning

If you’re looking for some unintentional comedy, check out this video of one of the last High Desert Corridor (HDC) meetings in Palmdale. Highway engineers trying to explain how excited they are to look at putting solar panels and windmills along a new freeway – you can’t make this stuff up.

The basic problem here is that politicians in the Antelope Valley and Victor Valley would like to build a new freeway from Palmdale to Victorville. But new freeways have a bad name with lots of people in other parts of the state, so the plans have been gussied up to try to incorporate the most popular urban planning and environmental ideas of the day. This is nothing new – about ten years ago, bus terminals morphed into “multi-modal centers”, and all you had to do was throw in a bike rack or two. Hey, now people can walk, bike, and ride the bus!

However, I think the HDC sets a new record for number of constituencies that a project has tried to please. It’s not just a freeway. . . it’s HOT lanes! It’s high-speed rail! It’s a bikeway! It will have windmills and solar panels along the ROW! This is kind of like bundling cable television: even though you don’t care for or actively dislike many channels, you still pay for them to get the one channel you want.

Reality check: the corridor in question makes sense as maybe a freeway and maybe a high-speed rail corridor. That’s about it. A brand new freeway in this area is not going to have the volume for HOT lanes to make sense, especially if it is wider than two lanes each way, which Metro and Caltrans seem to be suggesting. If anything more than a pittance is charged, people will use free alternatives like the 18 and the 138. There is obviously tremendous solar and wind energy potential in the Mojave Desert, but there is no logical reason for the development of those resources to be tied to the construction of a freeway, let alone confined to the freeway ROW. Solar farms in the Mojave Desert could probably go anywhere. Wind farms should be located where winds are most reliable (that’s why they’re in San Gorgonio Pass and Tehachapi Pass, after all). All of these things need to be unbundled from the freeway.

The response of the various constituencies is curious. For example, this Streetsblog article takes a pretty neutral tone. C’mon, Damien! You know you don’t like this project! If we’re going to build 50 miles of Class I bike facilities in the High Desert, this isn’t the corridor you want it on. For the money it will cost to build that component of the HDC, how much quality cycling and pedestrian infrastructure could we build within High Desert cities?

This is what happens when planning is done by checklist instead of putting real thought into the unique characteristics and needs of the area. It’s how suburban office parks get LEED certified and call themselves green. It’s how you end up with the Las Vegas Downtown Project, which the Urbanophile describes as “exceptionally buzzword compliant, right down the PBR on tap in the local establishments. All of the boxes are checked perfectly – too perfectly.”

Bundling all of these other improvements onto the HDC doesn’t make the freeway any greener. Each component should stand or fall on its own merits.

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