September 16, 2015 - From the September, 2015 issue

‘Beyond the 710’ Coalition Adamantly Opposes Tunnel Alternative

Closing the 710 freeway gap has been under consideration for half a century, with no shortage of opinions on the matter. Caltrans and Metro recently completed a draft EIR/EIS examining five options to alleviate traffic congestion around the gap. Here, leaders of the Beyond the 710 Coalition—Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian and South Pasadena City Councilmember Marina Khubesrian—explain to TPR their opposition and why the proposed tunnel alternative would be detrimental to communities in the area. They are joined by Paul Moore, a Nelson\Nygaard consultant to the coalition.

Marina Khubesrian

“The cost of the tunnel is an insurmountable challenge that is going to drain hundreds of millions of dollars during the process of determining it’s too expensive.” —Ara Najarian

The comment period on Caltrans’ Draft EIR/EIS for the 710 extension project ended August 5, with 2,500 letters submitted. Summarize Beyond the 710’s objections to the tunnel option.

Ara Najarian: We feel that the mere idea of a five-mile tunnel is so absurd, impractical, and infeasible that the County of Los Angeles, taxpayers, and commuters shouldn’t be wasting our collective time studying it anymore. We need to move beyond the tunnel, toward a transportation system that is complete, ecologically sensitive, able to grow, and affordable, and that will work for the community. 

The cost of the tunnel is an insurmountable challenge that is going to drain hundreds of millions of dollars during the process of determining it’s too expensive—due to the consultants, engineers, and lobbyists who are so locked into the idea that they are not using clear judgment.

The funding is a fiasco. The Metro Board said it would use the same per-mile standard for the 710 tunnel estimate as was used for the Seattle Alaskan Way estimate. Not only did they cut our estimate in half compared to the Seattle Alaskan Way tunnel, but the Seattle Alaskan Way tunnel is also mired in controversy: The drilling machine broke down after only a few hundred yards of boring.

We’ve always said that this is a bad idea for air quality. Recently, the AQMD stated that this tunnel would exceed the acceptable cancer risk levels by almost 15 times. What legislator, councilmember, board member, or agency would vote for a project like that? 

To summarize: It’s an impractical concept, it’s grossly infeasible economically, and it’s grossly dangerous in terms of the cancer risk.

Marina Khubesrian: As a councilmember of South Pasadena, a city that has been fighting this freeway for decades, I’m glad to see a growing coalition of cities and agencies working towards a real solution. It’s been an honor to serve as co-chair of the Beyond the 710 Coalition with Mayor Najarian, and I commend him for his leadership on this issue as a sitting Metro Board member. 

There are glaring problems with the proposed tunnel project. First, the tunnel is not financially feasible. The estimated cost for the proposed dual-bore tunnel, at $5.6 billion, is comparable to what was supposed to be the cost of widening the Panama Canal, which was a project of global significance. That project’s final cost was closer to $12 billion. Large-scale mega-projects like this tunnel run over budget 90 percent of the time. Even as a P3, it will drain funding from many other projects in the region and become a huge liability for the region and the state. 

The tunnel would travel under the cities of Los Angeles, South Pasadena, and Pasadena—not Alhambra. Alhambra and other city representatives who think the tunnel should be built as an alternative to a surface route are living in the past and working off a 1950s freeway-era plan to build a freeway from the ports to Pasadena to facilitate goods movement. 

Now, proponents of the tunnel say that the tunnel would not have trucks in it—only cars. That’s misleading, because the funding for a project like this, without trucks to pay the large tolls, would not make sense. 

On the other hand, having it serve as a goods-movement route would bring an additional 50,000 diesel-spewing trucks to and from the ports per day into this highly dense urban area that already suffers from some of the worst air quality in the nation. They call the area along the I-710 the “cancer corridor.” To bring additional trucks and freeway capacity to the communities along the I-710, SR-710, 210 and beyond is not an acceptable solution. Additional concerns are the concentration of pollutants at the tunnel portals—considered hotspots—which would certainly increase cancer risk, in particular for children. As a physician, I am very concerned about the health impacts of additional freeway capacity expansion on the communities in East LA, the foothills, and the region in general. 

The Beyond the 710 initiative proposes a multi-pronged approach for urban mobility and smart, sustainable growth that is consistent with state and federal goals for reducing GHG emissions, as well as those of the City of Los Angeles, which recently adopted its vision and framework for its future of transportation with Mobility 2035. 

We would like to get past the 710 freeway debate and move forward to bring sound solutions incorporating what we’ve learned and what studies support to the San Gabriel Valley region, East LA, and the Arroyo Verdugo Cities. Connected Cities and Communities was formed to do just that—bringing together cities and agencies including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Resources Defense Council. We retained the services of transportation consultants from the Nelson\Nygaard group and an economic development consultant from the Maxima Group to look at traffic patterns and assess the true needs of the subregion prior to proposing transportation solutions that would solve the problems and enhance the benefits to the impacted communities, including Alhambra, El Sereno, and Pasadena—communities that have been hurt by the current configuration of the freeway stubs. We knew there had to be a better way. 

We got back a sound, reasoned diagnosis of the problems in this region and a wise, practical package of multi-modal solutions. These solutions have the potential to mitigate traffic while boosting the economic and health benefits to the neighborhoods and communities currently negatively impacted by the freeway stubs. 

In the northern part of the corridor, they call the freeway stub south of the 210 the “ditch.” This is highly prized real estate land that has sat idle for decades, on-hold for a freeway. Pasadena residents working together with city staff, councilmembers, and consultants have come up with Connecting Pasadena—a plan to repurpose that land, redesign it, and connect it back to the community. They have identified huge benefits to the economy of that community, as well as improved mobility not just for cars, but also for people on foot and on bikes.

Paul, Nelson\Nygaard has proposed a $705-million multimodal solution for the corridor. Could you summarize that plan?

Paul Moore: The plan looks at a wide variety of concerns in the San Gabriel Valley and tries to address them with a wide variety of ideas. 

Metro and Caltrans’ EIR disproved the notion that a silver bullet idea like a tunnel exists and would solve all the problems. 

We’ve suggested a combination of transit solutions: extension of the Gold Line; a north-south surface transit route similar to the current 762 Metro Rapid, but faster, better, and more connected; funding and implementation projects for the San Gabriel Valley Bike Plan; and making walking a safe option. 

We’ve looked at “travel demand management.” Discounted or free transit passes for university students in the corridor would actually eliminate more driving trips than the tunnel would even carry. 

There are lots of smarter ways to spend dollars to accomplish the region’s goals better and more sustainably—dealing with the challenges people are actually facing instead of speeding up traffic for a few people who are willing to pay for the privilege.

Beyond the 710Mayor Najarian, you are not only a Glendale elected official, but also serve on the Metro Board. What are some of the challenges of securing a coalition for good regional solutions with local impacts? The desire for a goods-movement solution that would mitigate impacts from the harbor instigated the 710 saga. That effort is now being transposed into a local impacts narrative. Have you found a way to balance that local impact/regional benefit dichotomy?

Ara Najarian: Metro had been notorious for going in several different directions at once, without a cohesive voice at its board meetings or as we requested state and federal funding. Every member pulled for his or her own parochial projects.

When I became chair of Metro in 2010, I worked hard to bring those different parties and interests together. I sat down with each board member and helped them understand that, as long as we kept pulling only for our own project or our particular corner of the county, we would never get anywhere. We were going to be surpassed by New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Tampa in terms of funding. That message sunk in. 

During my tenure, we passed a unanimous long-range transportation plan. It had never been done before. The minute that passed, Washington and Sacramento started to listen to us. We started receiving billions of dollars in support for the projects, many of which were regional. We tasted the success of thinking regionally and enjoyed the funding that a unified Metro Board shares. 

With this particular project, the devil is in the details. There was support for solving the transportation problem in this corridor. It got sticky when Metro refused to look at any other reasonable alternative besides a freeway. When the courts blocked the surface freeway in the early 2000s, instead of looking for a holistic, active-streets approach, Metro said: Since we can’t do it on the surface, let’s just dig it under the ground. They were misled by an ultra-low estimate put forth by our former CEO—a billion dollars. The engineering-industrial complex sunk their teeth into this, since they are looking for a full-employment, stock-raising project that would build a legacy for their companies, stockholders, and CEOs for decades to come.


How might the regional needs of the goods movement and logistics industry benefit from the solution your coalition is advancing?

Paul Moore: The answer is to take the freight coming off the ships off of the highways. Devote the resources exclusively to rail transport of those shipments to an inland port—be it Palmdale, Lancaster, or in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. If they remove trucks going longer hauls from the highways, the cost of transportation will drop and the freeways will clear up incredibly. 

Don’t forget that during the 1984 Olympics, the freeways were in great shape. It was a miracle, some say. That wasn’t a 20-, 30-, or 40-percent reduction in trips on those freeways. It was a less-than-10-percent reduction that opened up the capacity. 

We can do the same thing for goods movement. Get those containers on rail, ship them on the Alameda Corridor east, and get them to those inland distribution points.

Marina Khubesrian: In the current SR-710 EIR, there’s actually no effort to address the very important question you put forward: goods movement. The Purpose and Need section completely excludes mention of this need. Even proponents of the tunnel oppose the inclusion of trucks in the tunnels. We need to address goods movement. We need to come up with sustainable alternatives that take some of the burden off our existing freeways. 

If we were to go back to the drawing board today, we would not propose a freeway through densely populated urban areas to address goods movement. So why are we talking about a tunnel that’s going to exclude trucks and cost upwards of ten billion dollars?

This project, beyond doing nothing for goods movement, bikes, trucks, or people on foot, does very little for cars. Currently, about 84 percent of the traffic coming off that south stub at the Alhambra/LA border is local, not cut-through, traffic. They’re going to places between that stub and the 210, and so would not use a toll tunnel. 

The benefits to cars are very minimal and temporary. Given what we know about induced demand, the benefits would be gone within a year of building, if that. 

Additionally, EPA, in its comment letter, states concerns about the impacts of five to 10 years of tunnel construction on the traffic and air quality near construction sites. 

Paul, in your view, are proponents of the 710 extension truly all foolish, naïve, and stuck in the 1940s?

Paul Moore: The results of the EIR suggest that they’re not getting the kind of results they seem to be advocating for and espousing. If what they want is traffic-congestion relief, the EIR showed very little of that. If what they want is an easier, more equitable way for all citizens to get around, that’s going to be hard to do with an expensive, tolled tunnel. If what they want is better transit access, that will be completely ignored and all of the resources will be sucked up by this project. 

To me, spending all of the money on something that doesn’t solve your stated problems would be, by definition, pretty foolish. 

There’s been discussion of a schism in the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments caused by the 710 issue, with the possibility of a new group forming. Can you talk about the politics of this battle?

Marina Khubesrian: The San Gabriel Valley COG has historically been in support of completing the freeway—even as a surface route, which is off the table now. More recently, the majority of members have supported a freeway tunnel alternative. However, there is a growing number of municipal agencies and their representatives who understand the political implications of supporting a tunnel project with huge financial and environmental burdens on the subregion. 

In June, at a meeting of the SGVCOG governing board, 16 out of 34 members voted to support the tunnel alternative. Seven members opposed the motion. This vote was taken before a critical analysis of the DEIR, before an opportunity for Paul to present the Beyond the 710 initiative, and before the cost-benefit analysis was released. Thus, it was premature and not founded in fact. After a two-hour debate in which many of us asked the COG not to take a position on a preferred alternative because it would be divisive given the strong opposition of several of its members who consider the tunnel to be an existential threat to their cities, the majority present took a position anyway. As a result, several member cities are looking into forming a separate COG through the Arroyo Verdugo Subregion. 

The Arroyo Verdugo Subregion Steering Committee, which I currently chair, represents the interests of the cities of La Cañada, Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and South Pasadena, which have directed staff to look into options for further formalizing the Committee such as a joint powers agreement or a COG. The cities represented by the subregion have exercised the option to request that Metro allocate future Measure R2 funds, which are allocated to individual cities on a per-capita formula, through the Arroyo Verdugo Subregion. We are looking into what it would take for further collaboration on transportation and other issues, either through a JPA or a COG. 

I believe that the SGVCOG and Metro transportation leadership understands that if tunnel funding were included in Measure R2, it would significantly jeopardize the measure. We believe that’s what happened, at least in part, with Measure J in the past. According to Alhambra Councilwoman Barbara Messina, Mayor Garcetti asked the pro-710 coalition not to push for the funding in the tax Measure. The tunnel is no longer on the San Gabriel Valley COG submission of projects to Metro for R2 funding. The monies have been transferred to light-rail projects. We do think that’s a step in the right direction. 

However, we need to go further. Anytime there’s been a poll after a debate—through KPCC or NPR—the public voted 10 to 1 for non-tunnel alternatives. When people are informed about the potential liability of the tunnel on many levels, they realize that it doesn’t make sense. Yet the tunnel is still being studied and considered by various agencies. The public will need to see continued Metro leadership on this issue and we will continue to hold leadership accountable. The EIR process was, and still can be, an opportunity to truly engage the impacted communities and cities and give policymakers a modernday, multi-mode alternative that we can all get behind. Our coalition, Connected Cities and Communities, has spent our own resources to do just that, and we have asked CalTrans and Metro to reject the tunnel alternative and formally study the Beyond The 710 proposal. 

From the lessons you’ve learned about the 710, how would you suggest that our region of 18 million people address situations that involve regional and local trade-offs going forward?

Ara Najarian: First, any decision, discussion, or analysis on a proposed project has to be made with clear, cool heads, with all the facts on the table and all stakeholders present. I contrast that to the 710 issue, where much of the decision-making has been done at cocktail parties. One or two mayors of other cities who are full-steam-ahead on the tunnel disregard the facts, coerce, cajole, and convince neighboring cities to join their group. The process has to be open and transparent. 

Second, communities most affected can’t just be one more vote in the decision-making process. They have to have a weighted and seriously accentuated voice. For example, the cities of Glendale, Burbank, and Pasadena have given the City of Burbank veto power on any significant changes to the Bob Hope airport. That requires coalition-building, and a fair and objective process in reaching a decision—rather than saying: “All in favor say ‘aye.’ Sorry, Burbank, you lose this round. We outnumber you.” 

The stakes are much higher for cities and communities where projects are located. Decision-making cannot be based on a one-city-one-vote process, which the San Gabriel Valley COG is instituting.

In a year and a half, what will we be reading about regarding the 710 that’s different from today?

Ara Najarian: I think you’re going to read the obituary of the 710 tunnel, and about a new dawn for transportation in this region that we can all be proud of. We are going to be proving, even to nay-sayers who want the tunnel, that this is a win-win for everyone in the region. 

Photo: Mayor Ara Najarian speaks on behalf of Beyond the 710 in May (


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