By Sean Belk, November 8, 2013
A recirculated environmental-impact report on plans to expand a
section of the 1-710 Freeway, a major thoroughfare for cargo trucks to
haul goods to and from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, should
be up for approval in a little more than a year. The billion-dollar
project calls for widening an 18-mile section of the freeway in order to
reduce traffic, decrease accidents and improve air quality.
Even though the governor vetoed a measure last month that would have
ensured that a new alternative be examined for the I-710 Freeway
Corridor Project, state officials and environmental groups say the plan
will likely be considered anyway.
SB 811, authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park/Long Beach),
would have required that the California Department of Transportation
(Caltrans) consider what’s called Community Alternative 7 in the
environmental-review process for the I-710 Corridor Project.
The billion-dollar infrastructure project calls for widening an 18-mile
section of the freeway. The number-one goal of the project is to improve
air quality and public health, followed by decreasing accidents and
reducing traffic. The project is considered one of the “largest
infrastructure goods-movement projects” in the country.
Although the governor vetoed the legislation, Lara said in an Oct. 11
statement that Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty has assured him that
“the concerns of the community will be heard and Community Alternative 7
will be analyzed.”
Lara added, “Though this bill was not signed, we have a relationship and
a seat at the table that will still enable us to advocate for clean
air, safe roads and healthy communities.”
The new alternative was brought forward by a contingent of community and
environmental activists who claim that existing alternatives in the
draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the freeway project “fall
short of providing a long-term solution to the project area’s
congestion, air quality and travel demands,” according to an online
Excluding a no-build option, existing alternatives call for expanding
the I-710 Freeway with up to as many as 10 new general-purpose lanes.
Alternatives also propose adding a four-lane freight corridor and
developing a zero-emissions goods-movement system.
Alternative 7, however, specifically proposes to: invest in public
transportation; mandate a committed zero-emission freight corridor;
integrate the restoration of natural resources, such as the Los Angeles
River; add pedestrian and bicycle elements; and include community
benefits, such as double-pane windows, air-filtration systems and
landscaped green spaces.
Seventh District Long Beach City Councilmember James Johnson, a member
of the I-710 Project Committee that consists of local city officials and
makes recommendations to Caltrans on the project, said in a phone
interview that the committee already recommended at its Jan. 31 meeting
that Alternative 7 be considered. He said Lara’s legislation would have
just forced Caltrans to study the option.
Earlier this year, the Project Committee voted to re-circulate
environmental reports on the project to provide updated data and studies
on adding a zero-emissions freight corridor and expanding
Johnson has supported a zero-emissions demonstration project that would
test technology involving cargo trucks using an overhead electrical
catenary-type system, similar to trolleys, near the ports, but this
proposal has yet to be fully approved.
Some environmental groups and health experts, however, say that
expanding the freeway alone won’t reduce air pollution but actually
increase capacity that could add even more emissions over time.
“Freeway construction and expansion has led to a car-dependent Los
Angeles with among the worst air pollution in the nation,” said Dr.
Roberta Kato, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Los
Angeles and an environmental health ambassador with Physicians for
Social Responsibility Los Angeles, in an op-ed piece published in local
media last year. “Now we must choose our children’s health and envision a
healthy environment for all communities.”
Dr. Felix Nuñez, chief medical officer of the Family Health Care Centers
of Greater Los Angeles, states in another online post that high levels
of exposure to carbon-based pollutants along the I-710 increase
incidents of asthma, other respiratory illnesses, cancer and diseases of
the cardiovascular and neurological system.
“Experience and research on induced traffic suggests that if we expand a
roadway to relieve traffic, additional drivers will fill the new
‘non-congested’ space, leading to an increase in emissions,” he said.
Johnson, who supported SB 811, said it’s still unclear what alternative
is best since Caltrans hasn’t fully studied them yet. The goal of the
measure was to make sure Caltrans looks at all alternatives and
determines the costs, benefits and any “unintended consequences” of each
proposal, he said.
“I continue to strongly believe all the alternatives should be studied,”
Johnson said. “I’m very excited about this project. We have a new
opportunity to meet all the goals of this project… I think it’s
important we make data-based decisions.”
Johnson said new data on the proposals listed in the re-circulated EIR
won’t be released or up for approval for about 18 months. “A decision
point is about a year away,” he said.
The new alternative and the legislation, however, was supported by
various community and environmental nonprofits, including the Coalition
for Clean Air, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and the
Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, among others.
After SB 811 passed both the Assembly and the Senate earlier this year,
Gov. Jerry Brown said in an Oct. 11 letter that he supported the goals
of the legislation but wouldn’t sign it because the measure would have
violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and created a
“precedent” by usurping the established process.
“I commend the author’s objectives in this bill to improve air quality,
ensure access to bicycle and pedestrian paths and increase access to
public transit,” Brown stated. “These are goals we share. However,
statutorily requiring the project environmental impact report to
consider specified mitigation measures that exceed the project’s scope
is a precedent I don’t wish to establish.”
Some city officials support the governor’s decision. Signal Hill City
Councilmember Larry Forester, also a member of the I-710 Project
Committee, said the staff members of the Gateway Cities Council of
Governments (COG) were not in favor of the bill.
“The reason we were against it is because it suddenly took the 14 years
of our efforts on the 710 expansion on track lanes and said, ‘Nope, this
is what we’re going to do,’” Forester said. “It’s taking everything and
trying to fold it into a CEQA, and it doesn’t work.”
Forester said widening the freeway is considered the best way to reduce
both pollution and traffic impacts, adding that, the longer cargo trucks
sit in traffic, the more pollution is emitted. He added that the
committee had already developed an air-quality action plan.
Still, Brown said Caltrans would continue to work with Sen. Lara and
local stakeholders on identifying mitigation measures within the scope
of CEQA that “ensures the I-710 project benefits motorists, goods
movement, the community and the environment.”
Patricia Ochoa, deputy policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air,
said in a phone interview that community members plan to work with
Caltrans in coming months to promote Alternative 7 as a “more
comprehensive vision” for the community.
“Our plan is to move forward and provide a way to implement Alternative
7,” Ochoa said. “We’re still working to make sure Caltrans looks at the
alternative as a whole. We don’t want to piecemeal it. We want a whole
concept together. We think it’s important because we feel the
communities around the corridor have been impacted by the 710 for
Johnson added, however, that a major factor in determining the best
alternative is finances. He said estimates put the I-710 Corridor
Project at about $5 billion to $6 billion but only about 10 percent of
that has been secured.
Developing a sound environmental report that can attract state and
federal funding will be critical to coming up with the required
financing, Johnson said. The councilmember added that the longer the
project takes, the longer pollution and traffic will persist.
“Every year that goes by that we’re not modernizing the 710 is another
year of dirty air and families being kept apart,” he said. “I do think
we need to move this forward.”