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For Alhambra, “local control” of the I-710 stub depends first on Caltrans

Traffic heading east on Valley Boulevard from the I-710 stub. Photo by Bastian Mendez.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

When he introduced legislation that would prohibit Caltrans from building a surface route or tunnel between the I-10 and the I-210 freeways, state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada) said he had one key goal in mind. It was to get the two stubs of the unfinished I-710 freeway out of the state highway system and give them to the cities affected by spillover traffic.

The one stumbling block, he told the Alhambra Source recently, is that Caltrans must provide language for the bill, SB 7, that he introduced in January in order to get it passed in the legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The ultimate decision is with Caltrans, Portantino said, since they have control over the stub and turning it over to another jurisdiction is a delicate process.

“The biggest challenge is within government code, how you refer to liquidations or reversal, whatever word you use, relinquishment versus abandonment versus returning,” Portantino said. “Each word has its own legal consequence, so Caltrans is trying to figure out what’s legal, what’s doable, what has the best economic implications for all sides. That’s what I’m waiting for.”

Receiving this language is the next step in the saga of what may happen to the I-710 freeway, which has stopped abruptly at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra since the 1960s. Portantino said that unknown legal and economic implications aside, he believes Caltrans’ priority is to facilitate local control over the I-710 stubs in Alhambra and in Pasadena. He said that the agency wants “to get out of the 710 business.”

“To a certain extent they have some control over the drafting of the language, so I think we have to be respectful and deferential to [them],” Portantino said. “So far, they’ve told me every indication is they want to get to yes, they just haven’t figured out the legal way to get to yes, yet.”

Portantino said he met with representatives from Alhambra and Cal State LA earlier this month to discuss the language they might want to incorporate in the measure about the I-710 stub that begins and ends at Valley Boulevard.

James Medina, the public information officer for Caltrans District 7, which manages the state highway system in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, said the agency is working with other stakeholders to discuss the future of both stubs, while also helping the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority and affected cities implement their transportation system management and transportation demand management projects, which are intended to improve capacity on local roads affected by I-710 spillover traffic. TSM/TDM was certified as the preferred alternative to the tunnel by Caltrans last year.

Medina added that any future use of the stub that’s outside of projects that have already been planned would necessitate environmental and traffic impact studies.

Portantino is anticipating an answer from Caltrans ranging from “yes, we’re just going it dedicate it back” to other jurisdictions to “no, we need further analysis.”

But he hopes that an environmental impact report can be avoided in the process. “That would drag this out forever,” he said. The SR 710 North EIR process for the I-710 tunnel, as well as alternatives to a freeway extension, lasted for years, with a draft EIR first being circulated in 2012. It was finalized at the end of 2018, when Caltrans chose TSM/TDM as the preferred alternative.

Portantino hopes to receive Caltrans’ input on the bill’s language and finalize the measure by September, when the legislature typically votes on bills that have been introduced. “That’s my hope to have all of this revolved this legislative year, but obviously, if we don’t, we’ll come back in January and [do it again],” he said.

Alhambra City Manager Jessica Binnquist agreed with the thought that Caltrans is essential to cities gaining local control of the stubs. “The [City] Council has made it really clear that they would like to have the local control, but to the extent that we can work with Caltrans and find mutually agreeable language, that would be in the best interest of all parties involved,” she told the Alhambra Source. “And if we’re all on the same page, the bill has a higher likelihood of moving through the legislature more smoothly.”

Alhambra Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler said she appreciates Portantino acting as a facilitator in this complex issue. “Sixty years is a long time to be fighting for a transportation thoroughfare in Alhambra, and to just have it be done one day on a bill that is just saying ‘close it’ would be unfair to all parties,” she said. “So I appreciate Portantino taking a step back and trying to include everybody.”

L.A. Metro addressing traffic

While state agencies determine the future of the freeway stubs in the I-710 extension area, L.A. Metro, which operates public transportation throughout L.A. County, is working with Alhambra and its neighbors on projects that address current congestion caused by the I-710 freeway.

In 2017, Metro pulled funding that was earmarked for an I-710 freeway tunnel extension. The following year, Caltrans officially endorsed the transportation system management/transportation demand management alternatives, and cities started submitting local traffic improvement projects for approval by Metro.

At the end of 2018, Metro allocated around $515 million in funding to a first round of projects submitted by affected cities and neighborhoods, said Abdollah Ansari, managing executive officer of Metro’s Highway Program. Cities were supposed to submit a list of projects for a second round of allocation by the end of March. Meanwhile, Metro is working with cities to iron out the scope and other details, and hopes to have them finalized by July, when they can internally determine the cash flow and timelines for these projects.

Metro’s hope is that most of these projects can be completed within ten years. “Most of the projects identified by the cities are small-scale projects that can be fairly quickly done,” he said. Costs are rapidly going up and major projects funded by Measure M and Measure R tax revenue are underway, making the finalization of these projects particularly urgent to avoid lack of resources and cost overruns.

Some of the submitted projects will go beyond the scope and funding currently identified within the SR 710 North Project EIR, including the I-710/I-10 interchange project. These will need “studies, processes, clearances, and agreements/approvals that will take some time to complete,” Ansari said.

Metro has so far set aside $100 million for Alhambra to design a I-710/I-10 freeway interchange that is more efficient, Binnquist said. In order to determine how a new interchange would impact local traffic, Alhambra needs the traffic modeling data used by Metro and Caltrans in the SR 710 North Project EIR. This data would enable all parties to determine if keeping the stub open to Valley Boulevard, shortening it or perhaps some other modification is their best option in relieving traffic congestion.

“The traffic model [data] will help us be able to look at the interchange and the affected area, and say, ‘This will be a problem here, or it will help here, or help by x percent and those types of things,’ so that we can make some informed decisions, and have some outreach with the community to make sure what those options are, to help the traffic flow better,” Binnquist said.

Metro has also allocated $20 million each to the redesign of the on and off-ramps on the I-10 freeway at Fremont Avenue, Atlantic Boulevard and Garfield Avenue, so that they can handle more cars at peak times and help facilitate the flow of traffic on nearby north-south surface streets. For the second funding round, Alhambra has submitted projects that includes funding for the draft bike plan that the City Council could approve as part of the city’s new general plan; structural enhancements to the bridges over the Union Pacific railroad trench on Mission Road; a shuttle line from the Gold Line station in South Pasadena to various stops in Alhambra; and a study to reassess the routes and frequency of the Alhambra Community Transit bus line to Cal State LA’s Metrolink station.

Binnquist said that the city has a better idea of what the I-10 freeway ramp redesigns would look like, but that traffic modeling data would allow them to see the effect on those on/off-ramps should any change occur at the I-710 stub. “The traffic model definitely will help us to decide how much more load they will have to bear, if the 710 is stubbed at the 10,” she said, referring to one course of action for the I-710. “And we’ll be able to see the ripple effect of the possibility of closing the 710 at the 10, how far that goes down the 10 freeway lineup.”

Part of the challenge is finding the best solution for Alhambra without causing traffic problems for its neighbors. Robert Lopez, Cal State LA’s Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs, said that the university was concerned with the effect that closing the I-710 stub would have on the campus with its enrollment of more than 27,000.

“We continue to meet with our community partners to develop the best transportation solutions for our region,” he said. “We are concerned, however, that closing the 710 stub would restrict access to the university and increase traffic congestion and associated problems in and around our campus and the communities we serve.”

Binnquist said that Alhambra wants to find a solution that “effectively and efficiently” moves Cal State LA students through the city’s residential neighborhoods and onto campus. The city wouldn’t want to implement a solution that negatively affects Monterey Park either. “We’ve worked very closely with them for many years on the 710 project,” she said. “We want to make sure whatever project we do, doesn’t jam them with traffic, which obviously we would never do.”

In addition to helping Alhambra devise effective projects to relieve traffic congestion, the traffic modeling data from Metro and Caltrans would allow the city to present concrete ideas to Alhambra residents in contrast to meetings past. “The next time around, when we do outreach, we can really show people with maps and diagrams, this is what will help,” Binnquist said. “I think there will be expanded meetings. I think more people will show up.”

Cities working together

So far, these processes have run smoothly. This is not only due to cooperation between the cities with state and regional agencies, but due to cooperation between the affected cities themselves, a far cry from the days when Alhambra and South Pasadena fought each other over whether the I-710 freeway should be finished.

“The old battle lines are over and we’re all on the same page,” Portantino said. “So far, that’s all I’ve seen. I’ve only seen good conversations.” To him, this cooperation is key in avoiding confusion and has been the goal for the meeting he organized earlier this month with Caltrans and representatives of all of the affected cities, so that they could directly ask questions about the state process, as well as a future meeting that he is organizing with the cities and Caltrans District 7, which oversees the I-710 extension area.

“Now everybody has decided that the freeway is not the solution and we can live with that, but at the same time we have to somehow live with the congestion that is building up,” Metro’s Ansari said. “That’s why we’re putting so much emphasis on operational improvements, roadway capacity improvements, because the traffic spilled into those cities. We just have to do the investment right to get [the traffic] out of those areas.”

In addition to broader, data-driven community outreach, Alhambra wants to hold meetings with all Cal State LA, Monterey Park and other cities on the I-10 freeway that would be affected by the city’s traffic improvement projects and any changes that happen at the stub. These meetings would also include the participation of political leaders like Portantino; Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) who has also introduced a I-710 bill in the Assembly; Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Monterey); and state Sen. Susan Rubio, a Democrat, who represents San Gabriel Valley cities, including Alhambra.

Portantino underscores how unprecedented this situation is, of the affected cities having this much input into relieving traffic congestion where they are and into what might happen to the I-710 stubs. “This is sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where you actually have a pot of resources, and so the cities need to sort of self determine what they want to do and use this golden opportunity for laudable purposes.”

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