This story originally ran in Neon Tommy.
Captured by the light-rail line that quietly bisects their communities, many people living northeast of the City of L.A. are questioning why the county's public transportation agency would consider easing a traffic bottleneck with a project more befitting the 20th century.
For more than 60 years, the state of California has sought to complete a connection on a freeway now known as the Interstate 710 from Long Beach to Pasadena. A handful of lawsuits, hundreds of public hearings and millions of dollars in studies later, a stubborn six-mile gap between Alhambra and Pasadena persists. The groups and public officials who back the original vision have eyed one city for halting the project through unwavering resistance and court action—South Pasadena.
“We are hoping they'll come to their senses,” says Richard Katz, a former state Assemblyman who's remained heavily involved in the region's transportation planning.
But the problem it seems goes much beyond a single town—where Trader Joe's is one of the largest employers—and speaks to the mind-numbing difficultly of appeasing L.A. County's diverse, sprawling and gigantic population.
The debate over whether the I-710 should be completed—most likely through parallel 4.5 mile tunnels—has returned this spring with 18 gatherings scheduled by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro). The events are designed to ascertain public concerns ahead of a complete analysis of ways to deal with the gap.
Metro hired two public relations firms to make the meetings more congenial and to engage with community members on Facebook and Twitter. At a meeting last Saturday in Pasadena, about three dozen residents from around the region showed up. There was roughly one organizer for every two attendees.
“It's unlike anything I've ever seen before,” one of the lead consultants, Mary McCormick, said of the outreach effort's breadth.
Residents from Santa Clarita, Arcadia, Pasadena and other cities throughout eastern L.A. County pleaded with Metro to take a more “transparent,” “systemic” and “holistic” approach to planning transit projects. While some supported the idea of extending the freeway, strident opposition from residents in South Pasadena and neighboring cities continued to dominate.
The tunnel as imagined would tear through ground underneath historic homes in a city of 25,000. Locals feel it would disturb the small-town utopian atmosphere that brings acclaim to “South Pas.”
“I've been fighting for a 100 years,” South Pasadena resident Mary Anne Parada said, exaggerating only slightly. “We have been fighting for our very lives.”
Metro's Board of Directors approved moving forward with the project last year. Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase L.A. County voters approved in Nov. 2008, allocates $780 million to fund a small portion of an I-710 gap project.
If a three-year environmental study finds closure of the gap to be necessary, Metro's board would have the final say in spending those millions. (It's unclear what happens to the funds if a project is not undertaken.) Metro hopes to charge a toll on the stretch of freeway. Such a plan could attract a private company to front the remaining billions of dollars needed for construction in exchange for a share of the toll revenues. The most recent estimate suggests the actual building of the tunnel would cost $3 billion alone.
Two in three county voters approved of Measure R. That may well have been because of the diversity of projects included in it. There were highway improvements, bus pass subsidies, bikeways, subways and light-rail lines. The measure's architects—chiefly L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Metro board member Katz and powerful L.A. public transit advocate Denny Zane of a group known as MoveLA—knew they needed to include both green, forward-looking projects and stalemated ideas such as the I-710 extension to ensure overall passage.
“It was a grand compromise,” Zane said. “We would have rather had all-transit, but we would have never won support.”
Now, in South Pasadena, Beverley Hills and Cheviot Hills, small groups that have long-opposed three of the largest Measure R projects threaten to undermine that same coalition's new scheme to construct those projects faster than budgeted for through a massive loan from the federal government.
Groups refusing to let go of their community's character and public agencies trying to meet regional demands for improved mobility remain locked onto each other. Many would like to see a light-rail corridor or freight-rail tracks supplement the I-710 and fill the gap. Others suggest doubling the number of freight-rail tracks along existing rights-of-way to make it easier for cargo to travel from the Port of Long Beach to industrial hubs in the north and the east.
Katz said the aggressive and open meeting process during the next several weeks would shed greater light on South Pasadena's furor.
“We have to make clear they don't like [any kind of project,]” he said.
The one issue both sides finally agree on is that this bout will be the last.
“You could probably build the freeway with all the money we've spent on studies,” Katz said with laugh.
Reach Neon Tommy executive producer Paresh Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @peard33.