Ralph Hitchcock: The Highway 174 project — is this actually an improvement?
“The boondoggle begins,” by Phil Carville on the Highway 174 project, highlighted many of the problems with the project itself, its justification, and in dealing with Caltrans. There are institutional reasons why Caltrans stonewalls the public, carefully chooses the safety statistics to justify projects, and deviates very little from its standards regardless of need for the project or sensitivity to local conditions.
When a large bureaucracy like Caltrans is created for design, construction, and subsequent maintenance of infrastructure, its very survival depends on continually creating and justifying new projects. Two main factors lead to the Caltrans resistance to consider alternatives to the planned improvements and to the justification for a project, regardless of how well-researched and reasonable the public input is.
The Caltrans monolith is institutionally incestuous with very little questioning of methods or choice of standards. That is because many of the employees begin with Caltrans early in their careers and grow within the organization, so there is very little questioning of methods and procedures and an almost complete uncritical reliance on standards and procedures.
In addition, because of the continuing need for projects, it is important for Caltrans to choose the most favorable way to use accident data to justify projects. Since the safety report is so basic to enabling projects, Caltrans is resistant to accept criticism or make any changes.
The 174 project was also justified by the Caltrans version of the accident statistics. In addition to choosing the most favorable time span, Caltrans used accidents which the improvements would have little or no effect on. For instance DUI or drugs, which caused the three deaths used to help justify this project.
Even speeding accidents will continue because the same type of drivers who now drive too fast for conditions will continue to test the limits of the new geometrics, but they will be going even faster. Accident severity increases with speed because impact increases by the square of the velocity. As an example, if speeds on a curve increase from say 40 mph to 55 mph the impact force almost doubles.
Flatter curvature is an obvious factor in increasing speeds, but a less well known influence on increasing speeds is the amount of open space on the sides of the traveled way. For most drivers their speed is influenced by this without even realizing it. On roads with narrower-open side space, drivers tend to overestimate their speed and thus drive more slowly.
Conversely with wider-open side space, drivers tend to underestimate their speed so will drive faster. This project will significantly increase the width of shoulders and add a recovery area, in addition to cut slopes. Compared to the existing narrower road and shoulders, the trees and pasture fences will be much further away leading to faster speeds.
Therefore this project will definitely increase speeds on the “improved” section of 174 because of flatter curves and increased open side space. This increase in speeds brings into question, what will spending an exorbitant $28 million on 1.9 miles of 174 and damaging the rural setting accomplish?
The flatter curvature and more open side space provided by this project may not only fail to improve safety, but stands a chance of making the accidents which do happen more severe. To sum up, this project’s overblown size and inappropriateness in a rural setting is caused by Caltrans bureaucracy’s institutional resistance to any outside influence, no matter how qualified or reasonable it may be.
Ralph Hitchcock is a retired civil engineer. He lives in Nevada City.
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