San Bruno Says No to a Wasteful Highway Widening

Adam Cozzette is a software engineer and Strong Towns member from San Bruno, California. Today, he shares a guest article about the successful halting of a local highway widening project.

Judging by the amount of cars on this road, there is absolutely no need to increase its capacity, and we don't need a study to tell us that.

Judging by the amount of cars on this road, there is absolutely no need to increase its capacity, and we don't need a study to tell us that.

Last week, the City Council of San Bruno, California voted not to continue studying a widening of Skyline Boulevard (State Route 35). This is a major victory for the grassroots coalition that has been fighting back against the expansion project for months.

The segment under consideration for widening is a 1.5-mile stretch of two-lane conventional highway on the edge of town. It is bordered on the east by residential neighborhoods and on the west by the popular San Andreas Trail and peninsula watershed open space. The San Mateo County Transportation Authority and the City of San Bruno were proposing widening the highway to four lanes, in an attempt to alleviate rush hour congestion. Based on the preliminary planning study, the expansion was expected to cost at least $35 million.

When I first learned about the project over a year ago, my initial reaction was concern for how this would affect people like me who walk or bike on that road. While the road has relatively wide shoulders, it also has high-speed vehicular traffic and a speed limit of 50 miles per hour. Widening the road could only result in higher speeds and more risk of serious injury. The preliminary study did not consider how the widening would impact people walking and biking. San Bruno city staff eventually admitted that this was an accidental oversight, and that the city would push to include protected bike infrastructure as part of the project. By this time, I had learned from reading Strong Towns to be skeptical of the expansion, even if it might include decent infrastructure for walking and biking.

As far as I could tell, the project was not motivated by a rational assessment of its costs and benefits. The rationale seemed to be: this segment scores poorly on level of service (LOS) and therefore we must widen it. I knew from experience that the southbound direction is only congested for an hour or two on weekday mornings, and the northbound direction for just an hour or two on weekday evenings. The rest of the time, traffic flows smoothly with little or no delay. If we widened the road, we would be spending tens of millions of dollars on new capacity that would be unused about 95% of the time. For the other 5% of the time, induced demand would most likely prevent the widening from alleviating congestion much in the long term.

A few of us spread the word about the project to many in the community, including active transportation advocates, environmental groups, and other San Bruno residents. The Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter's Sustainable Land Use Committee helped us write a letter to the city council about the environmental harm that would come from the widening. We were also fortunate to receive some advice from Pacificans for Highway 1 Alternatives, a group in a neighboring city that had recently defeated a highway widening project. When the issue went before the city council last week, sixteen people urged the council not to widen the road. No one from the public spoke in favor of the widening.

I hope San Bruno's decision will set a positive example for the region. Our transportation officials at the county level are now in the process of drafting a new half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, to go before voters next year. The conventional wisdom is that to get a transportation tax like this approved by the voters, you must include a substantial dose of spending on highway expansions. San Bruno's decision is an example of how local communities do not necessarily want indiscriminate highway spending.

To read more about Strong Towns members making a positive impact in their communities, visit our success stories page. And if you want to help create more success stories, join the movement.

(All photos by Adam Cozzette)

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