Is That a Ghost Freeway on the Peninsula? And Are Our Highways Filthier Than Ever?

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A Caltrans crew cleaning up an embankment along Highway 99 in Sacramento.  (Caltrans)

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ur Bay Curious audience is a reliable source of questions about transportation, whether we're talking about walking, bicycling, riding on public transit or driving on local highways.

This week, we've got two questions — both voted up by you, the people — that come from the world of Bay Area freeways.

First, Herb Masters, a San Carlos resident, asked what was up with what we'll call for now "a ghost freeway" that appears to have been started, but never finished, on the Peninsula.

And second, we have a question from Daniel Huertas of San Francisco, who wants to know: Why is there so much trash on our freeways? And is it just him, or are Bay Area freeways really getting dirtier?

Herb's question first. His specific query was: "I’d like to hear about the unused on and off ramps from the freeways. In particular the ones at the intersection of Interstate 280 and Interstate 380. I suspect they were planning on a freeway to the coast."

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For the uninitiated, Interstate 280 is the freeway that runs from San Francisco's South of Market on the north end to the outskirts of downtown San Jose on the south. The highway, routed through the Peninsula hills and devoid of billboards, has long been called "the world's most beautiful freeway." (Yes — some people think a freeway can be beautiful.)

Interstate 380, by contrast, is a simple 1.7-mile connector that links I-280 to U.S. 101 adjacent to San Francisco International Airport.

It turns out Masters' "suspicion" about I-380 is spot on. The freeway was conceived of as something much more than it is today.

Back in the formative years of Bay Area freeways, highway planners envisioned the freeway continuing west beyond I-280, across San Bruno's Crestmoor Canyon, up over Sweeney Ridge, descending to meet Highway 1 somewhere in Pacifica, perhaps in the Sharp Park neighborhood.

Caltrans confirms that history. The best single account of the plan, though a brief one, appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal in 2014. Titled "The Interstate 380 Controversy," the Journal's piece characterized opposition to the freeway among San Bruno and Pacifica residents this way: "The public was outraged. The pristine watershed would be violated with gas-belching cars and smoke diesel 16-wheelers. No way would they allow this to happen."

This piece of Interstate 380 is just one of several freeways that planners dreamed up for the Bay Area just before and after World War II that did not get built. An extensive freeway system was envisioned for San Francisco, for instance, that was famously derailed by what's remembered now as "The Freeway Revolt" of the late 1950s and early '60s.

What prompted Herb Masters to ask about I-380 is a visible remnant of the original "freeway-to-Pacifica" plan.

"I've always seen where it was clearly designed for 380 to continue west," he says.

It's easy to miss the clue he's talking about because you can see it best from the freeway, and if you're driving you have only seconds to ponder what you're seeing as you approach the 280 interchange.

But here's what to look for: As you head west on I-380 from 101, you'll pass an exit for El Camino Real. After that exit, you'll see signs for the highway splitting ahead: right lanes for northbound I-280 to San Francisco, left lanes for southbound I-280 to San Jose. As you approach the split, the median widens dramatically and is fenced in. That part of the road — straight ahead — marks the spot where I-380 was intended to carry through to the west. On the west side of I-280, there's a large, apparently excavated area that's been used as a golf driving range in recent years.

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o much for our Peninsula ghost road. Now let's talk freeway garbage.

Daniel Huertas' specific question, which got a solid plurality from Bay Curious voters, was this: "Why has there been an accumulation of garbage along Bay Area highways in recent years?" He expanded on that when we called him.

"It seems like in general, there's just trash all over the roadside," Huertas says. "As I drive, I think, 'Is this related to a homeless encampment, or is this just months and years of people throwing fast-food wrappers out of the door?' "

He thinks things have gotten worse over time. "I grew up in the Bay Area, and it used to be quite clean," Huertas says. "I honestly don't know why they're not cleaning up our roads anymore."

Part of the answer to Huertas' query is pretty easy to answer. Caltrans, the agency responsible for the rights of way along freeways and state highways, says there's no doubt that there's more debris and trash along the roads these days.

In a report last summer, the agency said that Caltrans workers, volunteers and crews from a program to aid parolees and veterans had picked up about 359,000 cubic yards of garbage from the state's roadways in the most recent year for which data is available, fiscal 2018-19. Caltrans workers were responsible for cleaning up about 186,000 cubic yards of that amount.

"How much is 186,000 cubic yards?" the Caltrans report asks. "Enough that if stacked one yard high and one yard wide, the line of garbage would extend for approximately 105 miles — from, for example, Santa Ana to Tijuana, or Roseville (north of Sacramento) to San Francisco. It is the approximate equivalent of 1,302,000 bags of trash."

And Caltrans says the cost to pick up all that trash is staggering: $102 million in 2018-19. Also staggering: How quickly the volume of garbage and associated cleanup costs have grown. The agency says in 2016-17, the highway trash total was about 330,000 cubic yards, swept up at a cost of $65 million. That means the overall cost of cleaning up roadsides went up nearly 60% in just two years.

One factor driving the cost higher, Caltrans says, is that it's more expensive to deal with litter associated with the encampments of unsheltered people — camps that have sprung up with greater frequency as the state's housing affordability crisis has intensified.

We'll get to the issue of what role the encampments play in the litter issue in a minute, because the camps certainly are not the only factor or even necessarily the most important factor in California's highway trash problem.

All of us play a part in fouling the roadside. To prove it, Caltrans produced a time-lapse video showing a freshly cleaned up freeway in Sacramento and how little time it took — just a few days — for the area to become strewn with cast-off wrappers, paper, boxes and other junk.

The sources of the trash appear to be the tens of thousands of people passing by this spot. Some of the stuff that winds up on the roadside may come from loads that aren't securely tied down; some of it may come from people who are done with their to-go food containers and pitch them out the window. (Which raises the eternal question, when you throw something away, where is "away?" But we're only going to tackle one existential trash issue at a time.)

In addition to the ongoing challenges of highway trash, Caltrans said cleanups were complicated in the past year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following guidance from public health authorities, the agency pulled crews off the roads when stay-at-home orders were imposed a year ago. Work began again in early June, but the agency says it's still working to catch up with accumulated debris in some areas.

Now, we did ask Caltrans about the challenges it faces dealing with trash and debris at encampments for the unhoused, and the agency emailed us a response. Here's the key piece of the message:

Regarding the volume of trash coming from encampments:

Consistent with CDC guidance to prevent community spread of COVID-19, Caltrans is proceeding with encampment cleanups if there is an immediate safety concern or threat to critical infrastructure. We will continue to work with cities and other partners to move people into safer situations as available.

Immediate hazards may include severe fire risk that poses a threat to the encampment, the community and the infrastructure. It also may include the potential for loss of life due to its proximity to traffic or by blocking access to Caltrans and CHP personnel attempting to protect and maintain critical infrastructure.

Since June, when state guidance permitted Caltrans to resume trash combatting efforts, we have been working to clear trash from the perimeter of encampments and throughout the entire transportation system. Trash accumulated rapidly during the stay at home order, but crews and partners are making every effort to make headway.

One important note to keep in mind about Caltrans encampment cleanups: The agency is walking a fine legal line in dealing with this issue. That's the result of a lawsuit brought against the agency on behalf of camp residents who lost property, including medicine, food, clothing and other belongings, during past Caltrans camp sweeps.

Under the terms of a settlement announced a little over a year ago, Caltrans is paying out a total of $1.3 million to those whose property was destroyed in the sweeps. A reported 1,300 people have sought compensation so far, according to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the ACLU of Northern California, which brought the suit.

And as part of the settlement agreement, Caltrans agreed to take steps to avoid destroying camp residents' property in the future. Those measures include giving 48 hours' advance notice before clearing camps and storing seized belongings for at least 60 days.

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