Key Announcement Expected Soon
By Camille Endacott, January 7, 2015
Environmental Impact Report [to be] Released in February
“Do you want to see my war room?” says 83-year-old freeway fighter Maryanne Parada. She shuffles toward her back porch, leaning on her cane as she leads the way past framed pictures of Pope John Paul II and “NO 710” protest signs. She stops at two giant file cabinets and opens a drawer, rifling through tabbed newspaper clippings, highlighted geographical surveys, and old transportation reports. “I’ve been fighting the freeway since the 1960s. This is a fight for our very lives.”
Vowed to Protect Home
Parada has dedicated the last 50 years of her life to protecting her quiet town nestled in the Los Angeles suburbs. Parada was nine years old when she was uprooted from her childhood home near Chavez Ravine, which was demolished to make way for construction of Dodger Stadium. Fast forward to 1963, when Parada was a young mother who had recently moved to from Highland Park to South Pasadena with her husband and six children. When she heard that Caltrans planned to build a freeway straight through the center of the 3.4 square mile town, Parada vowed this time to protect her home.
South Pasadena’s fight against the 710 freeway surface extension, which was designed to bridge the current gap between the freeway’s off-ramp in Alhambra and on-ramp in Pasadena, has spanned decades. Parada has participated every step of the way. “I would go to transportation meetings with my rosary,” said Parada, touching the beads around her neck. “I would say it quietly. People rolled their eyes at first, but as we kept fighting they said ‘Bring your rosary!’”
After countless city council meetings, citizen petitions, and organized protests, Parada’s prayers were answered in 2013 when Governor Jerry Brown signed an injunction on any above-ground freeway extension along the 710 corridor. Caltrans-owned homes long empty were released for sale, and South Pasadena’s town center was saved from demolishment.
The battle of South Pasadena was over. The fight over the fate of the 710 freeway, however, was just beginning.
“It’s been a war since day one,” said Alhambra City Councilmember Barbara Messina. “This project has been studied for 40 years. I don’t think there’s a project that has been studied as much as this one. You can’t argue facts with people against this project because they don’t want to admit they’re not right.”
War Since Day One
Messina, who served as a council member in 1986 and was re-elected in 2010 and 2014, has spent much of her time in office studying the 710 freeway and has been advocating to close the gap for years.
“It’s not just about Alhambra and South Pasadena having issues with each other,” said Messina. “It’s a regional problem.”
Messina said the congestion at the 710 off-ramp not only inconveniences the community but seriously harms it.
“We have three elementary schools that are right on the arterial streets where all the traffic sits in the morning and evening,” said Messina. “These kids are breathing in all of the congestion from the cars that are just idling. Our streets and our neighborhoods are getting pounded.”
After the surface plan through South Pasadena was scrapped, Caltrans and Metro were forced to consider other solutions to the congestion that plagued Alhambra streets. With plans for a surface route vetoed, another solution emerged: to go underground.
“There are five alternatives that are being studied, one of them being the tunnel,” said Messina. “The tunnel is the only one that will be selected for all the right reasons, the main reason being that it is the only one with financing attached to it.”
Measure R Funding
According to a 2013 Alternatives Analysis Report conducted by Metro, a tunnel connecting the 710 would be “a viable solution that warrants more detailed evaluation.” The tunnel would receive funding from Measure R, which passed at 68% in L.A. County in 2008. According to Metro’s expenditure plan, Measure R implemented a half-cent sales tax to fund transportation improvements, 85% of which they said would be allocated for bus and rail projects. The revenue, though, will be directed to fund the tunnel option should Metro and Caltrans be cleared to build it.
To move ahead with the project, Metro and Caltrans are currently conducting an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that will be released in February 2015.
In these next few months before the study is released, passionate advocates from both camps are planning their strategy. For long-involved advocates like Messina and Parada as well as zealous new campaigners, this is the calm before the storm. Like contenders before a match, both sides are shadow-boxing as they compile the artillery of their battle: facts.
Boxing in the anti-freeway corner, is the woman Parada calls the freeway guru: the city of La Canada’s Jan Soohoo.
Soohoo, who received her master’s degree in biology from USC, said she didn’t start studying transportation until a neighbor asked her to attend meetings of a La Canada grass-roots group called the No 710 Action Committee in 2010. Since her first involvement in the committee, Soohoo has applied her natural research and analytical capabilities previously used to study ocean currents towards freeways.
Invested Much of Her Time
Soohoo has invested much of her time in investigating the potential safety dangers posed by the tunnel. The tunnel, which will be approximately 5 miles in length, will have no exiting ramps for vehicles. There will be emergency exits for commuters to flee the tunnel should a crisis occur, but individuals would have to walk to the nearest exit and up two flights of stairs to reach ground-level. Soohoo noted that if an explosion were to occur in the tunnel, the buildings above it (and those inside of them) would be in serious danger.
Also concerning is the research that suggests the tunnel won’t actually decrease traffic. One Metro-sponsored study found that 76% of the cars that currently exit the 710 in Alhambra aren’t even trying to reach Pasadena. The 23% of drivers who are heading to Pasadena might not even use the tunnel.
Because of the project’s huge cost, Caltrans and Metro will partner with a private investor, necessitating that the extension will be a toll road to cover the investor’s overhead contribution. Soohoo read one study that found commuters show a 35% toll avoidance rate and fears that the toll road will force even more drivers out onto surface streets, increasing the current gridlock.
“The fact is that Caltrans understands what a horrible project this is, and that it won’t solve the traffic woes for the region,” said Soohoo. “It will increase pollution and health care costs for everyone in the 210 corridor, east and west of Pasadena, and from a fiscal standpoint it is irresponsible.”
Tunnel Faces Huge Cost
Margaret Lin, the principal management analyst for South Pasadena’s Freeway and Transportation Commission, also questioned the tunnel’s effectiveness in light of its huge cost.
“The initial estimate for the tunnel is $5.6 billion, and we see in other tunnel projects, the cost tends to go up,” said Lin. “We believe the money could be better spent on improving infrastructure, expanding travel networks, and creating something that’s more sustainable and actually meets the state’s need in term of air quality improvements.”
Both the city of South Pasadena and the No 710 Action Committee support a multi-modal approach, or a combination of measures, as the community preferred alternative to the tunnel. This would consist maximizing current infrastructure without construction, such as measures improving stoplight timing or alternating one-way streets. The groups also suggest the creation of a light-rail rapid transit system that actually connects existing stations. Though Metro is considering a light-rail option as one of the five alternatives, the proposed plan would force commuters travelling between Los Angeles and Pasadena to walk blocks to connecting rail stations.
“The devil’s in the details,” said Soohoo. “We try to deal with facts, not emotions, and we try to educate people based on what really is happening.”
The battle for facts hinges on the findings of the Environmental Impact Report, which is funded by Caltrans and Metro. Metro Senior Media Relations Officer Paul Gonzales believes that the report will help the public understand the implications of the freeway from an objective perspective.
EIR is Comprehensive
“The EIR is comprehensive, it’s factual, and it’s unbiased,” said Gonzales. “We encourage people to read it and to learn the facts for themselves.”
According to Gonzales, traffic delays from the existing gap cost motorists and business $1 billion annually. Additionally, the SR-710 is considered to be one of the most congested areas by Caltrans and results in 50,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide emissions daily.
“These emissions blow wherever the wind takes them: north, south, east, and west,” said Gonzales. “Children from all over the area are suffering asthma and other health problems due to inactivity on this issue.”
The effect of air pollution on children has seemed to be an integral component of pro-freeway rhetoric, in that redirecting surface street traffic could alleviate emissions near schools and parks. El Sereno resident Sylvia Perez, though expressed concern for an elementary school in her area that would be removed to make way for the tunnel.
Pushes for Light Rail
“My main concern with the tunnel is the impact on the elementary school,” said Perez. “I think a bus or rail option would be so much better than taking schools out.”
Lobbyists for and against the extension are trying to win over citizens like Perez: those who are skeptical of the plans but who aren’t passionately involved or informed about the review process. For Cleavon Govan, who worked for Caltrans for 41 years and now consults as a Senior Environmental Specialist at Metro, though, there are no easy answers.
“Different communities want different things. I wish I was Solomon and could offer some wisdom on what alternative will be built, but I can’t,” said Govan. “I’ve seen the anguish and animosity on both sides of the issue, and this is a real textbook case of a controversial project. You can’t please everyone.”
Govan also thinks it’s crucial to remind the public that Metro and Caltrans will consider all five alternatives equally.
“We’re neutral, we’re being fair, and we’re just looking at the facts,” said Govan. “We at Metro are believers in multi-modal systems too, in bicycles and other low-impact alternatives. I live a multi-modal lifestyle — I still run marathons.”
Comment Period for EIR
Govan stressed that Metro and Caltrans will not make any decisions until the EIR is released in February and the public has had ample opportunity to comment on it. Alhambra and South Pasadena will continue, though, to clamor for pull in what Govan calls “the 710 conversation.”
The city of Alhambra hired an outside public relations firm to market the 710 freeway to their community, and held the first annual “710 Day” in July of last year. The firm also conducted a push poll of residents and reported that 85% of those surveyed approve of the freeway, a fact now proudly displayed on a bright orange banner hanging over Alhambra’s congested Fremont Street.
“The campaign has worked incredibly wonderfully,” said Messina. “They’ve done a great job. We’ve still got a lot of work to do though.”
Freeway Fighter Weighs in
South Pasadena resident Joanne Nuckols, who opposed the 710 surface route in the 1990s and continues to fight against the tunnel option, called the findings of the poll a certain choice word. After conversations with participants in the poll, Nuckols said that the questions were cleverly worded to confuse respondents into declaring support for the freeway.
“Some of our people got the call, and they said if they didn’t know better, they would have thought the freeway was a good idea,” said Nuckols.
For No 710 activists, it comes down to information and their group’s ability to mobilize the public by educating them about the freeway’s impact. For 710 opponents like Nuckols, the fight against the freeway is more than just a continuation of South Pasadena’s traditional involvement. Though cities like South Pasadena and La Canada are often accused of being elitist and selfish for trying to keep the freeway out of their traditionally affluent neighborhoods, Nuckols said her reason for involvement was simple.
South Pasadena City Manager Sergio Gonzalez insists the tunnel would be a tolled freeway commanding between $8-12 each direction. He also stressed that a determination hasn’t been made if trucks would be allowed to use the underground freeway. “Shouldn’t elected officials and those that may be crazy enough to use it, know before billions are spent?” he said. “There’s no money to pay for it. Lastly, outreach on this project in part by Metro has been a failure. Although Metro staff will quote how many public outreach meetings they’ve held, the fact of the matter is, every single decision narrowing the best alternatives down from 112 to now 5, has been made by Metro Staff and their paid consultants. Nothing has changed as a result of public input. In fact, their outreach to underserved communities like El Sereno has been dismal. Never mine that everyone already knows that this project has already been predetermined. If you throw more than $40 million of precious taxpayer dollars to pay for an unbiased study, it’s funny how it will magically come down to a freeway tunnel as the preferred alternative…a result proponents have been pushing for decades. Taxpayers deserve better processes but more importantly far better transportation solutions.”