Is California ready for an autobahn?

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A stretch of the autobahn in Germany. CC BY-SA 2.5

Where did the autobahn idea come from?

This idea comes from Senator John Moorlach, a Republican from Orange County. He introduced SB 319, which if passed would require the state Department of Transportation to build two additional traffic lanes on both northbound and southbound Interstate 5 and State Route 99, between Bakersfield and Stockton.

Those new lanes would have no maximum speed limit. The other lanes of traffic would still be limited to 65 miles per hour.

This bill -- in a coincidence of timing -- was introduced just days after Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared to call for a scaling back of high-speed rail. Moorlach claims he was working on his plan before the Governor’s State of the State speech last week.

Why does he want to do this?

Moorlach says he wants to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases caused by drivers stuck behind big trucks.

Moorlach’s reasoning is frankly hard to credit -- after all, Moorlach also said he wants to drive his ‘96 Chevy Impala SS at 100 miles per hour.

Scientists point out that driving too fast or too slow causes an increase in carbon emissions. Besides, the ‘96 Chevy Impala SS is not known for its environmental cred. It gets about 18 miles per gallon.

Reducing carbon emissions is one of the main reasons German lawmakers recently considered imposing speed limits on their autobahn. But there was a public outcry and the plan was scrapped. They love driving fast over there.

But is an autobahn safe?

Moorlach says yes. He points to a World Health Organization study finding that Germany has about a third of the road traffic deaths per capita than the U.S. does.

“The autobahns in Germany are safer than freeways in the US. So you know, being a diligent driver, pulling over when you’re going too slow, that seems to be working quite well over there,” Moorlach said.

However, German researchers have found that there are far less -- 26 percent less -- deadly accidents on stretches of autobahn that have a speed limit than on those without. That’s another reason why they want to reduce speed on the autobahn.

Is there a chance of this actually happening?

Not really. It’s a pretty far-fetched proposal, and Democrats control the Legislature.

And there are many questions left to answer, like:

  • Will there be a minimum speed limit on these high-speed lanes?
  • How much would it cost to build 300 miles of new freeway lanes?
  • Where would the money come from to add these lanes?

Moorlach thinks we could use money from the state’s cap-and-trade program, which collects money from companies that pollute. Much of that money has already been earmarked for high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, Trump now wants California to give back nearly $3.5 billion federal dollars for the high-speed train project. And as LA Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote, “you can hardly blame President Trump” for wanting the money back.

So Republicans smell blood in the water and are going in for the kill, let’s say.

Moorlach’s is not the only pitch for a car-based alternative to high speed rail.

The co-chair of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation’s e4 Mobility Alliance, a coalition of transportation business and research folks has called on the Governor to “repurpose the high speed project as an autonomous, connected vehicle highway.”

It seems that Californians will do anything they can to avoid mass transit and stay in the car.