Expanding Our Freeways to Improve Air Quality?

The California Department of Transportation claims that cleaner air and improved safety are key motivations for its proposed 18-mile freeway expansion along the I-710 Corridor—from the Los Angeles and Long Beach Port Complex to the SR-60 Freeway.

PSR-LA also wants cleaner air and improved safety, but expanding the I-710 freeway will allow for more cars and trucks to travel, ultimately creating more congestion in the area and impacting air quality. Instead, the project should focus on alternatives that reduce car dependence and truck traffic. The only expansion that would improve community health would be to develop a zero-emission freight corridor. Currently, an average of over 1,000 diesel trucks per hour[1] travel on the Long Beach Freeway through the communities of Compton, Paramount, Lynwood, South Gate, Cudahy, Bell, Bell Gardens, Vernon, Commerce and East Los Angeles — all low-income communities where a majority of residents are people of color.

Truck traffic has been associated with a number of health problems. For example:

  • Several studies show that women living in close proximity to heavily trafficked freeways with elevated pollution levels are more likely to give birth to low-birth-weight or premature infants. [2]
  • Higher community exposures to fine particulate air pollution is associated with premature mortality and increased incidence of lung cancer [3]
  • Every year, 19,000 premature deaths can be attributed to California’s air pollution.[4]

For almost a decade, PSR-LA has been part of the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice (CEHAJ), which has been working to improve air quality, community health and overall quality of life for residents living in the I-710 corridor in Southern California. CEHAJ strives to achieve environmental justice and ensure the right of community residents to be part of the decision making process. Since the beginning of the I-710 corridor expansion project, this coalition has been working to ensure that the goods movement integrates key public health and community concerns while at the same time supporting initiatives and policies that promote and include zero-emissions technology. Check out CEHAJ’s I-710 Corridor Project Fact Sheet (pdf) on the I-710 project.

CEHAJ successfully advocated for a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to be conducted on the I-710 Corridor project to better assess the project’s impact on health. However, the over 10,000 page Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR),  which was released in June, fails to include the analysis from the HIA.   Jonathan Heller, Director and Co-founder of Health Impact Partners presented a case study of this HIA experience and suggested that decision makers were closed to HIA’s findings: “Without a commitment to equity and democracy on the part of those controlling the HIA process, and without power in the hands of those who support these values, HIA can become another technocratic tool that supports those in power who are interested in maintaining the status quo.”

Caltrans is required to provide a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), for this proposed project under the California Environmental Quality Act. The over 10,000 page report analyzes six potential designs, called alternatives, including a “no-build” option. All but the “no build” alternative will result in a total of ten general purpose lanes on the freeway–five lanes in each direction. Some of the design alternatives also include an additional four truck lanes for either general use trucks or for zero emission trucks.

The South Coast Air Basin has the worst air quality in the region and  fails to meet federal air standards. PSR-LA is dubious that additional freeway lanes will resolve the threat to public health. The DEIR assumes that additional freeway lanes will increase speed, decrease congestion and therefore reduce traffic emissions. PSR-LA is concerned that the added lanes will actually induce more driving, which will ultimately result in an equally or more congested—with more vehicles filling more lanes—freeway. Several traffic studies have found that in time, highway and road expansion induces demand for driving; in other words, within a few years the traffic lanes added to relieve the congestion, will be filled with new cars, increasing congestion and total traffic emissions. How soon will an expanded I-710 freeway reach capacity, and how many drivers will re-route to take advantage of a larger freeway? Unfortunately, the DEIR does not include an induced traffic analysis.

The air quality chapter of the DEIR analysis (pdf) also assumes that congestion in the corridor will decrease and that vehicle and truck technology will be cleaner in the future. Within this analysis, all alternatives show a reduction in particulate matter (PM) emissions from exhaust, nitrogen oxide (NO), carbon monoxide (CO), reactive organic gases (ROG), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), when compared to the 2008 baseline and Alternative 1. However, some alternatives show increases in these pollutants in certain areas along the I-710. As public health advocates we need to question an analysis that increases vehicle traffic, but reduces air emissions.

On LAstreetsblog, Damien Newton points out the flawed reasoning that freeway expansion will create a healthier environment: “The justification for this $5 billion project that would add seventy two miles of highway lanes is that it will improve air quality by creating more lanes for cars to drive in, safety by increasing lane width and travel speeds, and reduce congestion by encouraging more cars to use the already congested corridor.”

Take Action!

Every day, physicians and public health professionals see the effects of air pollution—in the forms of increased asthma, heart disease, and cancer –on their patients, and therefore must play an important role in this policy debate. While physicians can prescribe a much-needed medication to an asthma patient, by advocating for transportation decisions they can improve community health for all communities living alongside the I-710 corridor,

Join PSR-LA in standing up for clean air. Here are three ways you can take action.

1. Attend one of the official public hearings:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012
6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Progress Park, 15500 Downey Ave., Paramount, CA 90723

Wednesday, August 8, 2012
6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Silverado Park Community Center, 1545 W. 31st St., Long Beach, CA 90810

Thursday, August 9, 2012
4:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Rosewood Park, 5600 Harbor St., Commerce, CA 90040

2. Tell Caltrans:

Include the Health Impact Assessment (HIA) in the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR). This health study was completed in 2011, and if included in the final EIR, can identify more accurate health impacts resulting from the project, and help us demand mitigation measures to protect health.

Do not add general purpose lanes. Additional freeway lanes will not address the region’s congestion and air quality issues. An induced traffic analysis that looks at future congestion and capacity issues should be conducted on all the alternatives presented.

Make any potential freight corridor for zero-emissions vehicles only. If an alternative is selected, a freight corridor should be for zero-emissions vehicles only so the impact on public health can be minimized.

3. Sign-up to be a PSR-LA Environmental Health Ambassador

Contact Patty Ochoa at [email protected], (213) 689-9170, ext. 102. We will send you more information about the I-710 Corridor project and other significant transportation projects impacting health.

Together, we can ensure that all communities have access to safer, accessible transportation options and clean air.

[1] See various studies:
–Kathleen H. Kozawa, et al. Near-road air pollution impacts of goods movement in communities adjacent to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Atmospheric Environment, 2009.
–California Department of Transportation, Traffic Data Branch, 2006. Annual Average. Daily Truck Traffic.
–Zhu, Y., et. al. Study of ultrafine particles near a major highway with heavy-duty diesel traffic. Atmospheric Environment, 2002.
[2] Wilhelm M, Ritz B. Residential Proximity to Traffic and Adverse Birth Outcomes in Los Angeles County, California, 1994–1996.
[3] Dickey, Jefferson H., MD., “Air Pollution and Primary Care Medicine.” Physicians for Social Responsibility. Viewed 2011.
[4] National Environmental Trust. Toxic Beginnings: A lifetime of chemical exposure in the first year. Washington, DC. 2001.


Add a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment