Neil Prescott believes he’s designed a green solution to freeway air pollution.
One might look at former CalTrans engineer Neil Prescott as a latter day Don Quixote tilting at the North Coast Corridor highway project. Rather than defeat it, however, he wants to enhance the project with an outlandish system he says would virtually eliminate vehicle exhaust pollution that will otherwise accompany the road for years to come.
The CalTrans and San Diego Association of Governments’ joint plan to improve coastal traffic flow on Interstate 5 through coastal North County, among other goals, was conceived in 1980. This year, 2020, marks two thirds of the way toward completing the job’s several phases, such as its environmental impact report in 2014 for example. Last summer saw the start of building two new lanes on each side of the freeway.
Uber driver Harrison Sydney wouldn’t mind driving in a green tunnel. “We’ve got to do something drastic about greenhouse gasses.”
And that’s when Neil Prescott approached CalTrans with his rather late-in-the-game proposal. Personal circumstances at the time had him driving from his home in Victorville to visit the Moores Cancer Center at UCSD, where he routinely saw many children being treated for cancer. The brutal realities prompted him to look into the latest research on the causes of cancer. What he found, he tells me, is that air containing ozone, the main ingredient in smog, and particle pollutants, both present in motor vehicle emissions, can bring on such childhood cancers as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, retinoblastoma, and germ cell tumors, not to mention adult afflictions cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes. And, of course, there is asthma, which affects both children and adults.
Prescott tells me he next looked at demographic statistics about population densities contiguous to the stretch of the I-5 being expanded in the North Coast Corridor project, namely, the 26 miles between La Jolla Village Drive and Harbor Drive in Oceanside. From that information he estimated that 116,000 children ages 6 through 16 live next to the freeway, or play on playgrounds next to it.
Darren Manson: “I’m happy to do it if it helps clean out air.
Great to decrease traffic congestion, Prescott thought, but what about the air pollution from vehicle exhausts? During my conversations with him, I got the impression of a person consumed with preventing childhood cancers to the point of an obsession.
On August 20, 2019, nineteen days after being seized by the passion, Prescott says he contacted the CalTrans I-5 Corridor Project manager. “I hand delivered the idea I came up with,” he says. He had devised a plan to reduce the exhaust pollution that was settling onto the schools and playgrounds. Ninety-nine percent of it could be eliminated, he tells me.
Prescott says he later sent a letter to CalTrans, SANDAG, and the cities through which the North Coast Corridor highway project runs. The letter he shows me is a rambling, five-page screed expressing an urgency about the problem of vehicle emissions pollution. At one point in the letter, he argues: “Funding for air quality on highway gas tax projects is currently $2.45 billion per annum.” (I was unable to verfiy the claim.) “However, there has been zero expenditure since 2016 when it was initiated, because highway departments are focused only on congestion, because of significant pressure to decrease commute travel times.”
The project build team told me by email: “What we received (Caltrans, SANDAG, and the city managers of Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista) was an email asking to have [Prescott’s] company, KLS Engineering, hired as ‘Oversight Engineering Consultant.’” On September 21, 2019, the project team responded to Prescott by email, reminding him that in 2013 an environmental impact report had been approved for the North Coast Corridor project. It noted, too, that the following year the California Coastal Commission had given the project its blessing.
The email followed up with mentions of two websites that explain how to go “about doing business with,” first CalTrans and then with SANDAG.
Lost in the process was Prescott’s actual proposal for how to eliminate highway pollution that causes cancer. What he explains to me over coffee is straightforward enough. In a nutshell, Prescott wants to put a roof over the six eventual lanes going in both the south and north directions. “Not a solid roof,” he tells me.
Here is the best picture I can paint. The roof is supported by trusses over which meshes made of chain link fencing are placed. Vines coming up from below grow into and through the mesh, creating an aerated roof. One sees such vines already growing on the retaining walls and noise barriers along the sides of Highway 76 in North County, among other places. A filtration fabric that requires occasional replacement underlies the permanent vines. Below that, photo electro-chemical air cleaners of 10 horsepower are situated strategically inside the tunnel-like structure. As vehicle exhaust fumes rise, the fabric and cleaners trap and filter them while the vines absorb the pollutants that would normally be blown into surrounding neighborhoods, schools, and playgrounds.
Prescott is a licensed civil engineer and the owner of the Southern California company he calls KLS Engineering. From 1991 to 1999, he worked as a traffic engineer for CalTrans in Orange County. “Toward the end of my time there,” he tells me, “management told me I was getting too old for the work and assigned me to the planning department. That was the most fun of my entire career, because I was looking at the big picture.”
The idea of a freeway roof “is an engineered system built from putting components together that anybody can do,” says Prescott. “But this would be the first time ever that it would be put into place.”
A roof over the freeway? you ask. What about the occasional glimpses of the ocean I get to keep me from going bonkers as I’m stuck in traffic. And for 26 miles between La Jolla Village Drive and Oceanside? I’d be ready for the looney bin before 10 of those miles.
I met two Uber drivers who spoke more positively about Prescott’s plan. Harrison Sydney and Darren Manson didn’t think they’d be bothered by driving in a virtual tunnel. “We’ve got to do something drastic about greenhouse gases,” Sydney tells me. “You and I will be long gone by the time serious climate issues start descending on people now young.”
And Manson said, “Even if driving in a tunnel bothered me, I’m happy to do it if it helps clean our air.”
But Elir Zyrkaj, who drives a Yellow Cab and hails from Albania, isn’t so sure. “When I lived in Italy, I drove several times through the Gotthard Road Tunnel in Switzerland,” he said. The tunnel, at 10 and a half miles, is the eighth longest in the world. “I got so anxious I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I started feeling like I couldn’t breathe.”
Prescott says nothing so freaky as that could happen in what he’s talking about. “A little bit of light will seep through the vines,” he says. “And there’d be artificial light inside, like in ordinary tunnels. But there is the problem of people getting hibernated,” Prescott admits. “So there will have to be breaks every five miles or so. The lagoons along Highway 5 will serve as the perfect places for halting the roofs and drivers to see daylight again.”
A number of people I spoke to view the Prescott plan as preposterous. The CalTrans/SANDAG officials only stiff-armed it as completely out of sync with their schedule. I failed to get a comment on its worthiness out of their environmental team, other than CalTrans spokesman Nick Buenviaje reporting that they called it “unscientific.”
Of course, the environmental impact report for the North Coast Corridor highway project acknowledges pollution as a problem. It notes that, “along the I-5, there are multiple homes, schools, day care centers, playgrounds and medical facilities…. The California Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board reported that children who live within 550 feet of heavy traffic have more medical visits than children who live further away from traffic. Medical problems such as slower lung development, asthma and bronchitis are also associated with traffic. For Prescott, the omission of cancer is a fundamental flaw in the report.
But the report maintains that whatever negative effects Highway 5 is now causing to people’s health will be mitigated by the greater transportation efficiency the upgrade will produce. “One of the main strategies in the Caltrans’ Climate Action Program to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions is to make California’s transportation system more efficient. The highest levels of carbon dioxide from mobile sources, such as automobiles, occur at stop-and-go speeds (0-25 mph) and speeds over 55 miles per hour; the most severe emissions occur from 0-25 mph.... To the extent that a project relieves congestion by enhancing operations and improving travel times in high congestion travel corridors... emissions, particularly CO2, may be reduced.”
According to Noel Spaid, as reported in the UCSD Guardian as early as November 29, 2010, expanding freeways “is a failed answer.” Spaid is president of PLAGUE, a Del Mar community action organization. “We are a car culture, [and the freeways] are full again in two to four years.”
In Spaid’s view, all modern cities have gone to a metro system. “Perpetually expanding freeways [doesn’t] work, and it’s a waste of money.”
Neil Prescott doesn’t go so far. “People gotta eat, and they gotta drive to work.”