Keep our freeways safe: Vote No on Prop. 6

September 2018 Column

Interstate 5 is the big one. It runs from Mexico, 797 miles from the Southern California coast through the urban core of Los Angeles and the all way up the Central Valley and past Mt. Shasta to the Cascades and the Oregon border.

Besides being California’s longest stretch of roadway, it is also the state’s most deadly, and the one at even greater risk to the lives of motorists unless we make sure that Proposition 6 on the November ballot is defeated.

Recent statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that 680 fatal crashes killed 768 people along the I-5 from 2010 to 2016. Analysts from the consumer advice website Value Penguin calculated the number of fatal crashes per vehicle miles traveled and combined that number with location-related factors to isolate how road conditions figured into the carnage. The conclusions: the 5 in California is among the top four of the deadliest highways in the whole United States.

And nowhere in the Golden State are drivers more at risk of a fatal crash than on the I-5 in Los Angeles County, where most of the freeway system is in excess of 60 years old and has served its purpose. Let’s face it. It’s completely worn out, and it needs to be replaced. If the federal government is not going to do it, then we have to do it ourselves.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature did something about it. Lawmakers passed, and the governor signed, Senate Bill 1. Over the next decade, the legislation will generate $52 billion to repair and replace our roads and bridges. In strengthening our overpasses and laying new pavement on streets and highways, the workers affiliated with our unions in the State Building and Construction Trades Council have been on the job around the clock all over California the past year to make driving safer. One of the great beneficiaries of their labor, and of SB 1, has been the heavyweight champion of California freeways, and that is Interstate 5.

Caltrans reports that 62 road or bridge repair and improvement projects in 16 counties on the 5 are included in the SB 1 funding package. Eight of the smaller ones have since been completed. About 15 others are currently under construction, with the rest either already approved or on the verge of getting the green light.

Construction on all of those remaining 39 projects, however, will never get under way if Prop. 6 passes. This ballot rollback shows a complete disregard for the smooth operation of our state’s highway improvement program and to the danger that even their cancellations will pose to drivers.

“Whenever we do a rehabilitation type project, which a lot of these projects are, especially when it comes to pavement and things like that, we always include safety upgrades, whether that is building a new median barrier, putting in new crash cushions or guardrails, or putting in changeable message signs to give people more information so they can get an idea if there’s an incident up ahead that they need to prepare for,” Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger told us.

Freeways in Los Angeles County as well as the Bay Area are the repositories of most of the blood that is spilled on the interstate highway system. It makes sense, then, that they came in for the biggest chunk of the initial $2 billion-plus of SB 1 outlays, to improve traffic management statewide, put in thousands of miles of lane-stripe widening, improve driver visibility and pave the way for a possible driverless future.

“One of the bigger safety features we have right now is our enhanced striping that we’re putting in roadways up and down the state,” Dinger said. “We’ve gone from a four-inch to a six-inch stripe in the highways to make it better for drivers to see. It also makes it better for the automated vehicles to see and to help align them with the lane.”

An added safety feature: flashing red reflectors on the back side of freeway lane dividers, including on I-5, to shock usually drunken wrong-way drivers back into reality before they cause one of those fatal crashes you read or hear about on the news. Something that simple can save a life—but someone’s got to install it, and be paid to do the work.

It’s all good stuff, these safety improvements. It’s all part of Caltrans’s effort to rebuild and make the state’s roadways more trustworthy for everybody in every car.

And it will all come to a crashing halt if the political opportunists who are pushing Proposition 6 prevail, at a major threat to road safety.

“SB 1 is going to allow us to rebuild roadways up and down the state,” Dinger said. “With the right funding, we’ll be able to put in all the new safety upgrades that we can.”

And if Proposition 6 is approved?

“Without SB 1, every one of those projects would be subject to deletion, downsizing, or we might have to delay them,” Dinger said.

The bottom line here is that Prop. 6 has nothing to do with improving the efficiency of government or putting money back into the pockets of hard-working taxpayers. The reality is that the amount of money the average motorist will save on car wear and tear, especially on tires, will more than make up for the increased revenues for the safety improvements that they will pay at the gas pump.

The truth is that this whole initiative is about the worst of our politics.

It’s about how the architects of our political dysfunction in Washington, D.C. are using this cynical Proposition 6 campaign to scare up voters for their side in the several key congressional races in California districts in November that could decide the makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives. These are the same politicians who have failed to do their job in the nation’s capital and failed to exercise their authority to hold the executive branch accountable in so many areas, not the least of which was its promise to roll out a massive federally financed national infrastructure program.

Maybe if the incumbents in Washington had followed through on that infrastructure promise, there would have been no need for SB 1. But the fact is that 20 months into the current Administration, they have dropped the ball on infrastructure. They still don’t have even the outline of an infrastructure plan.

In that vacuum, California acted, and it acted responsibly, in bipartisan fashion. Now, the architects of dysfunction are trying to con the voters into approving Proposition 6 in the hope that they can beat back the challenge that they face as a result of their own ineptitude and failed leadership.

We cannot let them succeed in overturning SB 1. Vote No on Proposition 6. If you drive a car in California, especially on the 5, your life may depend on it.