June 30, 2004 - From the May, 2001 issue

Closing the 710 Gap: A 30-Year War Starts Anew Alhambra's Talbot Argues Region Needs Freeway Fix

The 710 Freeway. No other debate in Southern California better illustrates the crux between local land-use decision-making and regional transportation planning. Since 1965, the completion of the 4.5-mile gap between the San Bernardino and Foothill Freeways has generated local controversy, but according to Alhambra City Councilmember and longtime resident Paul L. Talbot, the battle started anew three years ago when FHA agreed to finish the project, and completion currently enjoys widespread public support. MIR is pleased to present this interview.

Paul, the feudal war that's been going on for 30 years over the

4.5-mile gap separating the Long Beach (710) Freeway from the Foothill (210) Freeway wages on. As a City of Alhambra leader, share with our readers your perspective on what we can expect in the 31st year of this effort?

The battle has indeed gone on for 30 years, but the clock really started anew in 1998 when the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) signed the Record of Decision (ROD) agreeing to build the Freeway. While they were always slated to build it, prior to 1998 it had been tied up in litigation.

Over the last few months, Alhambra has been aggressively lobbying MTA to look at it in the same perspective-as a battle that started in 1998-and not rehash the last 30 years of dormancy. We've had unbelievable regional support in moving this ball forward, and the MTA's recently released preliminary staff recommendations for the 2001 Call for Projects allocated funding to design Phase 1 of the Freeway.

In addition, the 1998 ROD required design advisory committees to come up with budget items and interim traffic measures, and about $55 million has been set aside to do street improvements as mitigation until the final Freeway is built. Some of that funding is being programmed right now, and the rest will be available in the next year or two.

The main players in this story have been Alhambra, El Sereno, Pasadena and South Pasadena. Can you briefly explain for our readers why each community feels the way that it does? What are the varying points of view?

Until two years ago, Pasadena had supported the freeway completion. But when Bill Bogaard was elected Mayor and a new Council came into office in ‘99, the Council voted 4 to 3 to overturn the City's historical position. A citizens group in Pasadena then brought a referendum forward to fight the Council's decision and put the matter to voters, and in March of this year the measure passed almost 60 to 40%. In spite of intense lobbying by the Mayor and the Council, the City of Pasadena overwhelmingly supported building the Freeway. The portion of the gap closure that would run through Pasadena would go from where the 710 ends right now at California Boulevard down to Colombia Boulevard, and the majority of that property is already owned by Caltrans.

South Pasadena has always been and will always be opposed to the Freeway completion. It goes directly through their community, and they don't want it. They've come up with a "low-build alternative," which is basically traffic signal synchronization, one-way streets, parking relocation and general local surface control, with the stance that that will alleviate the need for the Freeway.

In El Sereno, Nick Pacheco, the elected representative for the 14th L.A. City Council District, officially supports completion of the Freeway. However, there are some activists in El Sereno that have been adamantly opposed because they don't want construction. Most of them live in the small neighborhood just north of Huntington Drive. Truthfully, their opposition has greatly improved the project because it has encouraged more mitigation measures than were initially included for all the affected communities. In 1995, El Sereno filed an environmental justice lawsuit arguing that while South Pasadena and Pasadena received an unbelievable $200 million worth of mitigation measures, El Sereno and Alhambra received nothing. And today's project is much better than what was originally proposed six years ago. Due to that lawsuit, the entire freeway is now below grade, there are two cut and cover tunnels, and the route has been redirected away from a historic area and a school. At this point, the elected officials that represent El Sereno all support moving forward with the project.

Finally, Alhambra has always supported it. Recent polls show about 85% of the community supporting the freeway completion.

Let's turn now to the funding of Phase 1. What, if anything, has the MTA appropriated? Can you flesh out MTA's position for our readers?

As I said before, the preliminary staff recommendations for the 2001 Call for Projects do include funding, though not until FY 04.

The MTA's Long Range Transportation Plan also lists the 710 completion project in what's called the "Strategic" category, though we'll be working on cleaning up some of that language. Basically, the Plan is divided into three scenarios: Baseline, Constrained and Strategic. The Baseline and Constrained are funded; projects in the Strategic category are identified as essential, but not quite ripe enough to fund, whether due to a lack of funding, lawsuits, etc. So while they're not prepared to move the 710 into the funded category, they are recommending $14 million (to be split 50/50 between MTA and Caltrans) to fund Phase 1 design, which goes from Valley Boulevard to Huntington Drive. They're saying that while there are still lawsuits and they still need to get past a court hearing and some other things, this project needs to be kept alive because it is so essential to the region's transportation and air quality conformity.

The Record of Decision has always stated that we're not going to eat this elephant in one bite; it's going to have to be done one step at a time.

What is up for decision at your May 24th meeting?

We'll just be looking to remove some of the language in the draft Long Range Transportation Plan that was slightly inaccurate. For example, the Plan makes reference to Pasadena's opposition to the freeway. But because that draft came out in January and Pasadena voters have since reversed their position, the information is outdated.

We agree that we don't need to program $150 million in construction funds in this year's Plan; we're not ready for that. But the Plan is updated every two years, and if we can get the design work going, finally resolve the lawsuits, and determine whatever additional mitigation is or isn't necessary, then we can start moving the funding scenario over. At this point, our battle is to get the money so that the engineers can put pen to paper and start the design.

How has SCAG managed to meet Federal air quality standards year after year without the 710 being completed?

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SCAG has a 25-year Regional Transportation Plan (RTP); MTA has the Long Range Transportation Plan. Usually, these two plans at least try to come together. But they don't really have to because the official document that the FHA uses for conformity issues comes out of SCAG.

SCAG's RTP is showing Phase 1 completed by 2010, and the remainder completed by 2020. Keeping the project in the 2020 Plan has allowed the region to meet its air quality requirements.

And if the 710 should never be completed, what happens to that Plan?

If the legislative will were to kill the 710, the SCAG Plan would immediately fall out of conformity because out of all the alternatives studied, completing the freeway has surfaced as providing the greatest benefits for the region. To date, SCAG has not been able to come up with anything to replace the 710 in terms of what it does for improving air quality and reducing hours traveled.

It's hard to say what would happen in the long-term. But the short-term picture is what some have called the "Atlanta syndrome," referring to when Atlanta fell out of conformity and the Federal government took control of its transportation funding. In the SCAG region, that would mean $4.6 billion would stop flowing to local transportation projects if the RTP were to fall out of conformity.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project just released a report that says Los Angeles not only has the worst rush hour traffic in the nation, but also has the worst overall commuting record. The report places the blame for the region's traffic problems squarely on the region's lack of adequate mass transit options, and found that new roads-such as the 710 Freeway extension-only attract more traffic. Can you give us a response to their analysis and conclusion?

We've done surveys and polls throughout the entire region, and there are only two communities in all of Southern California on record as not wanting the 710-the City of South Pasadena and now, the City of La Canada.

It's obvious why the City of South Pasadena doesn't want it. As for the City of La Canada, they feel that traffic will worsen because people will actually start using the northbound part of the 210. Up until now, it's been their own private little freeway, and they don't want that to change.

But with the exception of those two communities, the entire region is on board.

Some of the arguments of the South Pasadena folks have been that with the extension of light rail and the other local mitigation measures, alternatives exist to building a highway that cuts through their community. How do you respond to these arguments?

My feeling is that we need to do all of these transportation improvements. Even then, we'll still have too much traffic.

I support the Pasadena Blue Line; the Alhambra Council has voted every time to support moving forward with that Line. However, it's not going to completely solve the transportation issue of people going north/south. They're estimating the Blue Line to carry approximately 25, 000 passengers a day, whereas the Freeway will carry 200,000. Having said that, it doesn't diminish the need for light rail and all the other local traffic mitigation.

The irony is that if South Pasadena honestly believes that the low-build is the solution, why aren't they supporting Phase 1, which only extends the Freeway to Huntington Boulevard and doesn't even touch South Pasadena, and then low-build through their City? Phase 1 is great because it brings the traffic up through a major thoroughfare. If South Pasadena were really serious about the low-build, they'd encourage both Phase 1, which brings the Freeway up to their border on the south, and the part of Phase 2 that brings the Freeway down to Columbia on the north. Let the communities that want to extend it do it, and then figure out how to do low-build through South Pasadena. But they don't even support going to Huntington Boulevard. So I'm a little leery. We've always felt that the low-build is really the "no-build;" it's a delay tactic that they've used successfully for 30 years.

Let's close with this, Paul: In your opinion, does this region have the institutions capable of resolving disputes like this 30-year-old-or even 3-year-old-dispute? Do we have the insitutional mechanisms in place to be the architects of our future in this region re: transportation?

The mechanisms are there. The question is whether or not the political will exists to do what's right.

We're fighting to represent our constituents, who want to move this forward. At this point, it really depends on how the courts look at the measures and if they decide to move ahead with construction; any delay is considered a victory for South Pasadena. But the fact that MTA and Caltrans are working together with the FHA on design shows that the regional backbone to move this project forward is finally stiffening, and that they're committed to completing this project. And I'm very optimistic in that regard.

Are we ever going to get every city to agree to it? No. But did every city agree to it 30 years ago when the 210 and the 10 and all the other freeways were built? No. If we took the same approach that we have today, we would have absolutely no freeways. We have to look at it on a regional basis. There's never going to be enough money, but we need to determine the projects where we can get the most bang-for-the-buck. And in this case, that means completing the 710.

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