LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Barbara Messina had a prediction.
Sitting in her kitchen in Alhambra on a hot, early Summer day, she warned that the cities that opposed the 710 tunnel would regret their decision when they saw how much traffic comes to their streets.
“Those residents are gonna scream bloody murder,” the longtime city councilwoman said, speaking in particular about South Pasadena, which sued twice to stop the 710 freeway extension from going forward.
This opposition resulted in Metro pulling funding from the project this past May. While the final decision is up to the California Department of Transportation, the loss of this funding all but guaranteed the tunnel’s defeat.
In 1965, the 710 ended abruptly at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. Officials planned to connect it eventually to the 210 freeway in Pasadena. Because of endless delays, however, traffic has gridlocked Alhambra’s surface streets and polluted the air, endangering children at schools.
Messina, a member of Alhambra’s City Council member since 1986, was one of the fiercest advocates for the 710 freeway extension. Her husband’s first job had been purchasing houses along the freeway extension’s proposed path. Together, they had lobbied politicians locally, as well as in Sacramento and Washington to get the freeway finished.
In 1973, South Pasadena filed a lawsuit against finishing the 710, claiming that the freeway would ruin the character of its neighborhoods, necessitating the demolition of various buildings and trees. This lawsuit effectively tied the freeway up in litigation for the next four decades.
Messina said she understood why South Pasadena opposed an above-ground freeway going through their town. “I’ll give them that,” she said. “But they never really looked into how [an unfinished 710] was really gonna affect their community. They were just always against it from day one.”
The idea to finish the 710 freeway with a 4.5-mile tunnel gained traction in recent years. Area cities wouldn’t have to worry about a freeway going through their neighborhoods. Plus, Messina said, the tunnel would be designed to be environmentally friendly, and could be funded through tolls, along with $780 million in county money raised by a half-cent sales tax increase.
In 2009, Messina worked with then-State Senator Gil Cedillo on a compromise, giving up on building a surface route in exchange for South Pasadena’s endorsement of the 710 tunnel.
South Pasadena’s City Council adopted a resolution agreeing to this. Once Cedillo’s bill passed, however, it rescinded its support. “That just showed how insincere they were,” Messina said.
In 2015, a study by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority concluded that the tunnel would be the most effective option in reducing traffic in Alhambra and nearby cities. Metro reaffirmed that conclusion with a May 2017 report.
Yet Metro’s 14-member board of directors, chaired by Duarte City Councilmember John Fasana, voted to take away the $780 million earmarked for the tunnel project, claiming that there were no other funding sources to provide the rest of the $5 billion needed for it.
Instead, the board voted to fund traffic controls for Alhambra and cities affected by an unfinished 710. Messina said that such a decision would only motivate more drivers to use the surface roads, making traffic even worse. Not only would Alhambra be affected, she said, but South Pasadena would suffer as well, since Metro’s proposed traffic controls would affect such major thoroughfares as Fair Oaks Avenue and Huntington Drive.
Messina disagreed with residents’ complaints that much of Alhambra’s traffic problems were the result of the city’s overdevelopment. She said that the congestion is caused by drivers passing through from north to south and vice versa. She also said that solutions like traffic controls, public transportation and bicycle lanes would not be enough.
“The sad part is that you need everything, but you also need roads for the cars,” Messina said. “In Southern California, people are not going to get out of their cars.”
Asked what she thought of the 710 debate ending this way, Messina stared into the distance for a moment. “I feel that I let people down,” she said. “I spent most of my adult life on this project, assuring people that the tunnel would be selected. I really didn’t see this coming.
“I learned the hard way that you don’t believe everything that people tell you,” she said. “It was a hard way to end a good-fought fight.”