By Josh Stephens, May 1, 2015
PLANNING LA-When residents of South
Pasadena, California, hear “mind the gap,” they think of anything but
the Jubilee, Hammersmith or Piccadilly. For them, the gap in question
refers not to a subway but to a freeway — or lack thereof.
710 runs 23 miles north-south through the heart of the Los Angeles
Basin, roughly paralleling the path of the Los Angeles River, from the
port city of Long Beach to the inner suburb of Alhambra. There, the
freeway abruptly stops, just past its interchange with the 10 Freeway,
as if swallowed by a tar pit. Four-and-a-half miles to the north, the
210 freeway runs perpendicular to the 710’s logical route, and heads
eastward to connect Los Angeles County to the Inland Empire.
area is widely considered to have an incomplete transportation
infrastructure,” says Metro spokesperson Paul Gonzales. “This has
persisted for about five decades.”
plan is now afoot to close the gap. In March, the California Department
of Transportation (Caltrans), in cooperation with the Los Angeles
County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), released an environmental impact report detailing
alternatives for closing the gap. After years of bickering and
speculation, the EIR was mandated by 2008’s Measure R, a successful ballot measure that earmarked $780 million for the 710 corridor.
the report’s five options — from a legally required “no-build”
alternative to a light-rail line to a busway — the one that has arguably
received the most popular support involves a freeway-sized tunnel
running uninterrupted for 4.9 miles under South Pasadena at depths of
over 100 feet. The largest version of the tunnel would feature two
tubes, each with two levels of roadway.
It would, supporters say, mark the end of the freeway-building era.
the last freeway probably in California,” says Hasan Ikhrata, executive
director of the Southern California Association of Governments, the Los
Angeles region’s metropolitan planning organization.
“There is no place to build them, and now we need to provide other options. But this is a gap, this is not a new freeway.”
would also be “an enormous project,” according to Gonzales. The EIR is
currently in the midst of a 120-day public comment period, after which
the Metro board may vote to proceed with one of the alternatives. (The
EIR is appropriately massive, at 2,260 pages long.)
of the tunnel say that heroics may be necessary because “when you have a
gap in the system, it does impact the rest of the freeway system,”
Ikhrata says. SCAG does not have an official position on the
planners, civic leaders and, especially, cargo carriers in the Los
Angeles region have long bemoaned the gap. Freeway traffic either spills
out onto surface streets in Alhambra, or it crams onto other freeways,
gumming up untold miles of the freeway grid and affecting, by some
estimates, 200,000 drivers per day.
has persisted for the same reason that it arose in the first place: In a
precursor to the rampant anti-freeway activism of the late 1960s and
1970s, the residents of upscale South Pasadena simply would not allow a
freeway to disrupt, bisect and partially destroy their neighborhood.
Whereas may low-income neighborhoods across the country raised the same
concerns to no avail, South Pasadena’s affluence — it consists largely
of stately single-family homes and has a median household income of
$84,000 — enabled it to prevail.
Most of the trucks that travel the 710 are not stopping in
South Pasadena, unless to deliver a piano or something. What leaders in
the area’s goods-movement industry would like, however, is for trucks
to be able to travel smoothly through South Pasadena. The 710 is one of the two major freeways for the roughly 50,000 daily truck trips that begin or end at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The tunnel would give trucks a more direct route to the vast transshipment warehouses of the Inland Empire.
estimates that this inconvenience costs the industry dearly in delays,
in addition to the time loss and pollution caused by traffic. SCAG’s
draft 2011 Regional Transportation Plan suggests that a 10 percent
reduction in region-wide congestion in Los Angeles — which is the
nation’s most congested metropolis — would create 132,000 jobs.
(Caltrans is considering a separate proposal to build dedicated truck
lanes along the southern portion of the 710.)
dual-tunnel version of the project would, according to the EIR, have
the greatest impacts on travel times. It would reduce daily rush hour
traffic by 7,000 vehicle hours, or 2.5 percent less than current levels
in the 710 corridor.
potential benefits, say supporters, justify the expense of an estimated
$5.6 billion tunnel. It is expected that some of the expense would be
covered by tolls. But, while the tunnel would prevent the destruction of
houses and other disruptions on the surface, civic leaders in and
around South Pasadena remain firmly opposed. They say that a tunnel
presents a whole new set of hazards, financial and otherwise.
City Council Member Ara Najarian, who also sits on Metro’s 14-member
board, says he fears the true cost of a tunnel could be more like $14
billion. And he said that the tunnel’s impact on surface street traffic
would be negligible.
Pasadena Mayor Marina Khubesrian is the co-founder of the 5 Cities
Alliance, which opposes the tunnel (that alliance is countered by the
710 Coalition, a group of surrounding cities that feel pinched by the
gap). Khubesrian and other tunnel opponents have invoked such costly
debacles as Boston’s Big Dig, which went over $10 billion over-budget, and Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel, which grappled with a halted boring machine.
are concerned that (Metro and Caltrans) are still looking at a freeway
as a solution in this day and age,” says Khubesrian. “We see that as a
backward investment rather than investing in the future of
transportation with greener technologies.”
this month, Pasadena City Council voted to oppose the tunnel and
expressed support for a multimodal, public-transit-oriented plan.
taking the regional view are also encouraging Metro, which has ultimate
say over the project, to consider the mass-transit alternatives and to
encourage the completion of the Alameda Corridor East — an extension of a
successful below-grade rail line from the ports — to handle cargo.
need to seek a solution that’s going to get people out of their
vehicles,” says Najarian. “The freight shouldn’t be on our freeways in
the first place.”
way, even supporters of the tunnel insist that they are not trying to
pull the region back to the 1950s. No other new freeways are planned in
the region, and both SCAG and Metro have encouraged the development of
with the advent of light rail and subway tubes in the word’s freeway
capital, they are still minding one tiny little gap.