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When a highway project goes wrong, it can cost billions of dollars.
That’s the lesson that traffic engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, learned last year when a massive freeway closure in Southern California was canceled after more than a month.
The traffic jam was a major setback for a project that would have connected Interstate 880 to the Bay Area, and it was also a major headache for the state of California.
The $6 billion bridge would have run alongside a major freeway that stretches from downtown Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay, and its construction would have been crucial to boosting the region’s economy.
It was also crucial for the local highway system, which has long relied on a small number of freeway connections.
“We’re a lot more dependent on the California freeways, and this is really the last chance for them to come back,” said Jeff Stauffer, director of transportation policy and strategy at the Transportation Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“If you have a closure of the freeway, then you have no option but to turn to the next freeway.”
The $6 million project, called the Orange Line, was to replace a section of Interstate 890 from the city of Los Angeles into the San Fernando Valley.
It was originally supposed to be finished by 2020, but that deadline has since been pushed back to 2021.
In December, the state decided to postpone the completion date to 2021, with a new deadline of 2021-2023 being considered.
That would have left a large gap in the highway network, which would have led to long delays and traffic problems, particularly in the area around downtown Los Angles, said Kevin Kornberg, an associate professor of transportation and policy at UC Berkeley.
“We’ve seen in the past in California and elsewhere, that you can see a major traffic bottleneck with just a few bridges closed,” he said.
“It would have put a huge strain on the infrastructure that the state relies on for our roads.”
So what happened?
When the project was finally completed in mid-2017, it didn’t go as planned.
The tolls and fees on the freeway were high, and there were concerns that the project would not be built.
That was a significant factor in the project’s cancellation, and the state also faced criticism for not spending enough on the project.
“When the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) cancelled the project in January 2017, the public was outraged,” said Kornber.
“People were asking for an explanation of the decision, and Caltrans said that the decision was based on ‘unanticipated conditions.'”
A new project was proposed, but the tolls were so high, that it was simply not worth the risk, said Staufer.
He added that the highway project was supposed to create a highway connecting downtown Los Santos to the West Coast, but Caltrans decided to shut it down after the closure was announced.
The closure was one of many that have plagued the Orange line, which was supposed be completed in 2018.
“The closure of this project is a huge blow to the project, not only because it took so long to get going, but because it will likely have a significant impact on our infrastructure,” said Strugg, the UC Berkeley professor.
However, the highway is not the only toll project that has come down during the past few years.
In 2016, the Southern California Tollway Authority, which is responsible for the Southern Californian Toll Road, cancelled a project called the Golden State Expressway.
That project would have linked the California-Oregon border in Orange County to Interstate 405 in Portland, Oregon, with an extension to connect to Interstate 980 in San Francisco.
That project was initially expected to be completed by 2020.
In October, Caltrans postponed the completion of the project to 2021-2020.
That will be a major delay, as traffic on Interstate 405 has increased dramatically over the past two years.
“This project was canceled for a number of reasons, including the lack of funding,” Caltrans spokesperson Scott Linder told the Associated Press in February.
“For the last two years, we’ve had a number, a lot of closures.
We’ve seen congestion and a lot and a number and a half of deaths along the Interstate 405 corridor.”