Freeway Expansion a Misguided Approach to Improving Air Quality

How will expanding the I-710 freeway impact the health of nearby residents? In an Op-Ed published in EGP News, Dr. Felix L. Nuñez MD, MP, expresses his concern that freeway expansion will induce traffic and lead to negative health outcome in Bell Gardens, where he serves as the Chief Medical Officer of a community health center.

Crossposted from EGP News

Freeway Expansion a Misguided Approach to Improving Air Quality

By Felix L. Nuñez, MD, MPH

For decades, east and southeast communities living along the I-710 corridor, including Bell Gardens, where my community health center is located, have faced unrelenting exposure to hazardous particulate and noise pollution. Without question, improvements to the I-710 would benefit residents from Bell Gardens and from the other 17 communities that are located along the corridor. As a Family Physician, it was gratifying to read that the number one purpose of Caltrans’ proposal for the I-710 Corridor was to improve air quality and public health. However, I question the logic that implies that expanding the freeway to ten general purpose lanes and adding four lanes for trucks would achieve the purported goal of improving air quality. Rather than using $6 billion taxpayer dollars to expand this freeway to ten general purpose lanes and four lanes for trucks—as is being proposed with the I-710 Corridor Project—we should invest significantly in public transportation and speed the implementation of commercial and noncommercial zero-emission technologies. Such initiatives would reduce hazardous emissions and improve the quality of life for the residents and commuters of the corridor.

Everyday, our health center sees how high levels of exposure to carbon based pollutants along the I-710 result in negative health outcomes. Increases in the incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses are the most visible—but by no means the only—harmful effect. Diseases of the cardiovascular system, neurologic system, and cancer have also been linked to exposure to air pollution. There is little doubt that compounding exposure over a lifetime increases the risk of developing pollution related disease. Despite knowledge of this threat to health, there are ten schools, six day care centers and five mobile home parks within one fourth of a mile from the I-710.  This proximity almost certainly increases the likelihood of exposure related illness.

People who live in areas with high levels of pollution are often marginalized politically. Ninety one percent of the residents living in the I-710 corridor are people of color and often are medically indigent.

Experience and research on induced traffic suggests that if we expand a roadway to relieve traffic, additional drivers will fill the new “non-congested” space, leading to an increase in emissions. Despite well-documented lessons from countless other freeway development projects, proponents of the I-710 freeway argue that new lanes will reduce congestion and truck idling and therefore improve air quality. Given that these projects often induce more traffic, expanding the freeways to accommodate more cars and trucks is not a long term solution to our transportation and infrastructure needs. We have an opportunity to  move commuters to modes of transportation that use less fossil fuel—let’s not miss it.

The right approach to managing our freeways must move beyond the “bigger is better” mentality and instead incorporate a robust public transportation system and alternative fuel technologies. In its proposal for the 710 Corridor, Caltrans should analyze the impact of public transportation alternatives, such as constructing a light-rail line or Rapid Bus System along the freeway to increase mobility for residents of Southeast Los Angeles. To alleviate air contamination from the movement of goods from the ports, Caltrans should invest in the research and implementation of clean trucking technology. The corridor project should provide incentives for truckers, many of whom are financially strapped independent owner operators, to transition to zero or near zero emission technology.

A Health Impact Assessment of the I-710 Corridor recommended that “the alternatives being considered should include more concrete proposals and commitments to improve public transit, walkability, and bikeability.”  Moreover, it recommends that public transit, walking, and biking infrastructure in the Gateway Cities be fully funded before funding is sought for the I-710 Corridor. These are sound and realistic recommendations. Unfortunately, Caltrans’ over 10,000 page Draft Environmental Impact Report does not include the Health Impact Assessment.

Los Angeles’ massive network of freeways has caused our region to have the worst air quality in the nation. Transportation decision makers must take a lesson from regional history and develop a transportation system that contributes to healthier and stronger communities.

Felix L. Nuñez, MD, MPH, is a board certified Family Physician and Chief Medical Officer of the Family Health Care Centers of Greater Los Angeles, a nonprofit federally qualified health center serving the communities of Southeast Los Angeles.


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