Everyone loves to hate the 405.
And everyone loves to hate the 405 Project.
After all, the massive 405 widening mega-project came with mega-delays, greatly exacerbating the negative impacts for Angelenos, with collectively millions of additional hours wasted that commuters and residents will never get back.
This section of 405 is the among the busiest freeways in the entire nation, and frankly, it is simply unacceptable how poorly executed the construction project was. We in, the second largest city and largest county in the greatest country on Earth, should be able to do better.
This column isn't about pointing blame -- there are enough lawsuits and angry words about the 405 project already -- but rather, what we can learn from it, and how we can find the willpower to do better in the future.
With the carpool lane already open, and with the overall project heading towards substantial completion, it’s worth stepping back and reflecting.
The fact is, even if the construction project had been substantially completed on time, back in May 2013, let’s not forget that scoping started for the project all the way back in 2001.
That’s right, when preparation for the 405 project started, George W. Bush was in the White House. Barack Obama was just a State Senator back in Illinois. Facebook didn’t exist – heck, Mark Zuckberger hadn’t event started at Harvard yet, let alone started it and dropped out. Pluto was still a planet. It was a different era.
And yet, here in 2014, that same 405 Project creeps on towards final completion.
Given how infamous LA – and the 405 in peculiar has been for traffic – it’s all the more unacceptable that our standards for speed be so poor.
The broader political system is partially to blame – state budget problems caused the 405 project outreach to be aborted between 2003 & 2005. It took years more of outreach and planning in the EIR process before construction actually started in 2009.
Beyond the specific problems of the 405 construction process that caused the further delays – and there are many – there’s a real failure of our political, policy, and transportation systems to tolerate such slow processes as what’s normal and acceptable in both California and America more broadly.
While we here in the US should never emulate China’s labor, environmental, and safety shortcuts, surely we can learn a little from their urgency in building infrastructure more quickly. In the time that the 405 planning and construction has lumbered on, China built an enormous high-speed rail network, and built out subway systems across many cities. California, meanwhile, is inching towards taking at least twenty years to open one high speed rail line.
It’s certainly not a problem unique to California, but a broader issue in America. New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman, in the book That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, shares an anecdote about how the Washington, DC, area Metro system took longer to renovate an escalator than a Chinese city took to build a huge new convention center.
When the Beijing Airport project became delayed in the lead up to the Olympics, China sent applied huge numbers of workers to the project, so teams of different workers would be working 24 hours a day. It gone done on time.
When the 405 Project fell into ever-increasing delays, and we called for a faster pace of work, we were assured workers were going 24//7 hours a day — but it was routine to drive along the 405 without anyone working on Sundays.
Where will we find the willpower to do better in LA, and America? We absolutely must uphold worker and project safety, labor conditions, and the environment. But can’t we do things any faster here?
Thankfully, there is some reason to have hope. Mayor Eric Garcetti is to be lauded for bringing Nick Patsaouras on board to help expedite the 405 project. Garcetti recognized the public’s extraordinary frustration with the delays, and brought Patsaouras on to work in secret to increase urgency, helping the project make up for a portion of the lost time for getting the HOV lane itself done. The HOV lane opened this spring (still around a year after the 405 Project’s original substantial completion date, but better than the significant further delays for the HOV lane that had been forecast before Garcetti and Patsaouras intervened.)
But will we find the willpower to say that even if the 405 project had been done “on time” in 2013, that perhaps projects shouldn’t take more than a decade?
Infrastructure is enormously important for both the region’s and for America’s competitiveness. Previous generations built the national highway system, which created enormous economic growth and opened up the nation to travelers.
Let’s hope that lessons learned from the 405 project are applied to future projects and that we also collectively find the willpower to think bigger in Los Angeles -- and across America -- on whether our best-case timelines are really the best we can do.
At this pace, we’re falling behind.