By Lionel Rolfe, March 16, 2015
Some of the people seated around the long table in the elegant dark
wooded South Pasadena home have been fighting the idea of a five-mile
long tunnel nearly 200 feet beneath their feet for decades. To them,
that tunnel is the multi-headed hydra that they beat down, but only for a
while, and then it pops up again. It's like a cancerous tumor that can
never be removed.
About the time Caltrans and Metro recently
released a new Environmental Impact Report which once again advanced the
notion of building the tunnel, this group of veteran tunnel fighters
were meeting to take stock. The report also suggested alternatives to
the tunnel, ranging from realignment of existing streets, or putting in a
lot of light rail or doing nothing.
As far back as the '70s and
some say even back to 1939, Caltrans' intention to complete the Long
Beach (710) Freeway's from Long Beach to Pasadena was always part of
the plan. But for years, the plan has been foiled in court by the No 710
Action Committee, acting in alliance with cities like South Pasadena
and the Sierra Club. In other words, the people here in the room.
has proven terribly galling to the freeway builders that they have not
been able to complete that last leg to Pasadena in all these years. The
freeways were pretty much built in the '50s, during America's
flirtations with fascism in the form of McCarthyism. Freeways came out
of that era, when Ronald Reagan declared that those who opposed building
the Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine were communists -- because they
wanted to preserve poor people's housing rather than play baseball. It
was a period that allowed little dissent.
Yet activists fought
Caltrans to a standstill. The freeway system that came in the aftermath
of World War II was not without its doubters.
The Arroyo parkway
built to link downtown Los Angeles and the Pasadena area opened in 1940
and was L.A.'s prototype freeway, inspired by Hitler's famed Autobahn.
It was also about the same time that General Motors, Standard Oil and
Firestone tires acquired the rights of way to the old Red Car lines,
tore the tracks out and opened up the way for the freeway builders. The
effort to remold the Los Angeles basin with freeways after World War II
held sway for years.
When efforts to extend the 710 on a surface
route through South Pasadena were abandoned, Caltrans' engineers seized
on the idea of a tunnel -- it would be the longest traffic tunnel ever
built in the United States.
To the opponents, the idea of such a long tunnel was a worse
nightmare -- a financial nightmare and a dangerous misadventure of the
grandest proportions. The fact that there would be no egress once you
entered the tunnel from either its southern or northern entrances,
provokes images of many potential tunnel catastrophes for these
activists. One even suggested the tunnel would prove to be an
irresistible target for terrorists.
The men and women gathered
around that South Pasadena table also seriously dispute the estimate of
$5 billion for the tunnel as well -- pointing out that similar projects
in Seattle and Boston for tunnels not as long had similar estimates, but
by the time cost overruns were figured in, $5 billion tunnels had
morphed into $20 billion tunnels.
No doubt the people at the table
all shared a belief that freeways have been a disaster from the
beginning -- slicing and dicing communities and creating miles and miles
of wide swaths of concrete ghettoes.
In all the years that the
freeway builders have determined the shape of the Los Angeles basin
since World War II, there have been only two successful efforts to stop
them. One was the opposition that arose to the 710 extension, and the
other was the effort to stop the Beverly Hills Freeway, which would have
wreaked terrible havoc on Los Angeles if it had been built from
downtown Los Angeles through Hollywood and into Beverly Hills.
only other place where the freeway builders were also decisively
defeated was when San Francisco residents successfully fought to stop
the any further construction on the Embarcadero Freeway, which would
have destroyed the city's fabled waterfront.
The world views of
the proponents of freeways and the opponents are like parallel
universes. It makes perfect sense that opposition to more freeway
building would have come from those cities like Pasadena and South
Pasadena created in the craftsman era, which with their emphasis on
light and air and wood, proudly standing on the human side of the
equation. To this group at the table, it's a constant theme that the
purveyors of the notion that the Los Angeles basin should be a concrete
megapolis, are propelled by hubris, money and power.
Each of the activists at the table had their own reasons for opposing
the freeway. Take Jane Soo Hoo, who left an academic career in biology
to raise a family. She credits a lot of her perspective to the work of
Bent Flyvbjerg, whose Harvard lecture, "Follies of Infrastructure: Why
the Worst Projects Get Built, and How to Avoid It" says it all. The
founding Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University,
Flyvbjerg also wrote an article in The New Scientist, "Mega
delusional: The Curse of the Megaproject." He was one of the experts
hired to untangle Caltrans' mishandling of the recent upgrading of the
SooHoo believes that the engineers and road builders
obsessed with paving over the Los Angele sbasin is more than just an
obsession, it's a pathology.
To my left sits Jane Ervin, who is
the one who brought me here. Ervin retired from many years as a top
administrator at Los Angeles City Hall (she is the one who presided over
President Clinton's bailout to the city after the 1994 earthquake). She
happened to read a piece I wrote some years ago in the Pasadena Weekly about
the insanity of freeways as a means of transportation and also
remembered me as a classmate from the first grade at Westwood Elementary
She took me to dinner with an earlier set of anti-710ers.
I was impressed by the folks who attended -- I particularly remember a
couple who were professors of engineering at CalTech and had lots of
But I didn't write anything at that point.
The 710 extension was dead, seemingly abandoned even by Caltrans. But
as Ervin pointed out, that was only a false lull. Here we are, back
again, fighting the freeway builders with their obscene dreams of a
concrete future, she seemed to be saying.
I was moved to ask the group, "Do any of you think we are dealing with a conspiracy here?"
"Follow the money, yes it's a conspiracy," adamantly pipes in Mary Ann Prada.
Prada likes to say she's"only a housewife" (nine children),
nonetheless she has served has served as the anti-710s archivist for
years. She began collecting material in the '60s, although some of it
dates from way before then.
Playing the rube works well for Prada.
With considerable relish she tells of the time she sat in a meeting
with the "project manager" of the 405 Armageddon project.
engaged in a surrealistic conversation with the gentleman who didn't
know who she was -- since she was merely a housewife in the crowd. "You
know this isn't going to solve any traffic problems," she said. "This
won't end traffic on the 405."
She said he said, "I know."
"You know," she replied incredulously.
was this same meeting at which some of the freeway types were talking,
with great excitement, about a plan that would dwarf the 710 extension
-- they were talking about putting more traffic in tunnels underneath
the existing Carmageddon lanes.
"Build it and they will come," Prada quoted him as saying.
Bagaard, the wife of the current mayor of Pasadena, contemplates her
own opposition to the 710 extension. She thinks the question comes down
to health -- is it better to live in a Los Angeles basin that is mostly
concrete because that's what big money dictates? Especially if you
realize that living in a concrete jungle is both dangerous and
unhealthy. "We're doing everything for the automobile by making the
basin uninhabitable for humans. That's what bothers me -- it's as if
human lives don't matter, just the dollar -- and the egos of the
So what will happen? Diana Mahmud, Helgeson's attorney
spouse and mayor pro team of South Pasadena, who worked with him for
the Department of Water and Power, says she thinks there's a shift
coming in public thinking.
Mahmud believes that the upcoming
generation is more inclined to get on a swift train rather than own a
car and drive on the freeways. The newest generations are less
enthralled by cars than older ones, she says. They don't want to commute
-- they value highly the notion of living close to where they work.
"They don't want to just keep adding lanes to the freeways, which never solves the problem anyway," she added.
also predicts that the tunnel will fail because of the financing. The
tunnel builders need private money because they know there is no public
money for the project. So the idea is to make the freeway a tollroad.
The tolls would service the investor's stake.
said Rick Helgeson, a former Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
counsel, who has done lots of free legal work for the anti-710 effort
over the years. "Bureaucrats just do what they're trained to do. They're
not doing anything illegal" But he said he was also mindful of the
words of the great Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who
rhetorically asked, "Why do we always build freeways through poor
Mahmud describes how she was recently at a meeting where the tunnel
builders met with the high-rollers. Authorities tried to keep her from
coming in, but as an attorney with a knowledge of the Brown Act, they
had to let her in. From what she heard, the big boys weren't that turned
on. "It was clear to me they had no appetite for the project. They are
concerned about litigation," she said, noting that well they should be
-- because the anti-710 forces have fought them successfully at every
step in the courts.
She said the big boys also don't want to deal
with controversy, and "we're good at creating controversy." She said
they want to be handed projects where all the arguing and litigation is
over and that's never going to be the case here.
I ask who best
represents the freeway builders. They all quickly agree this would be
Barbara Messina, the five-time mayor and council member of Alhambra. She
has led the fight for the 710 extension as vigorously as they have
opposed it. Over the years, they have learned to regard Messina as a
formidable opponent. But Diana Mahmud shocks the group by dismissing
Messina as "small potatoes."
The others in the room are less
sanguine about Messina. They note that she has a husband and son who
worked for Caltrans. Messina is one of the cabal of tunnel builders. So
was Roger Snoble, once chief of Los Angeles' Metro, which got a lot of
money for transit because of Measure R. His was the last great voice for
the tunnel. Messina suggests Measure R provided some money for the
tunnel, but the anti-710 activists say the tunnel was never mentioned on
the ballot box. They say the measure was sold with the promise of more
Everyone at the table proclaimed that more and more people
are swinging to their side. The data base has grown from a 100 or so to
thousands. But still, they worry about Messina.
I chat with
Messina. Yes, she admits, she favors the tunnel because it is the only
plan that provides "air quality, mobility and ending congestion." She
said it still had not been decided if trucks would be allowed in the
And she is convinced that after a 120 or days of comments, hearings
and the like, of the three scenarios proposed in the report, only the
tunnel will make sense. The alternatives are more light rail and another
to streamline traffic flow. Messina dismisses light rail as
"ridiculous" and says traffic mitigation techniques have all been
implemented In the end, she's convinced, the tunnel will be "the only
Years ago, Messina served on the Alhambra school
board, and says twice she buried students she knew who were killed by
traffic, caused by the fact that the 710 extension was never built.
says she can understand why people hate freeways, but says they are an
"indispensable part" of existence in the Los Angeles basin. "It's not
the same as back east or in Northern California. We are built totally
different. It's a necessity of our way of life. They have to drive the
same freeways they are opposing."
To Messina, the only reason
people would oppose freeways is that they don't care about people who
live in place like Alhambra, where there are many poor people who the
opponents of freeways regard as so much garbage.
She's as absolutely convinced the freeway will be built as the opponents are who say it never should be and never will be built.