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The 710 tunnel’s fiercest advocate reckons with its defeat

Photo by Phoenix Tso


Alhambra , 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.”

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6 thoughts on “The 710 tunnel’s fiercest advocate reckons with its defeat”

  1. Melissa Michelson

    Why is her ‘argument’ either-or? Of course Angelenos won’t ‘get out of their cars’ — unless you offer them a viable alternative. Having to take walk 6 blocks to wait for a bus to get up to the metro is not viable.

  2. Some interesting items arose for the x2 and x1 tunnels which indicates expected changes or future congestion in Alhambra – 180,000 + 90,000 vehicles/average annualized day…
    = 45K + 22,500 commuters (2x = round-trips) from north of I-210 &&&&
    20K + 10K trucks going north and same going south every day (365/yr vs commuters 260days/yr)…
    SR710 is primarily a truck bypass for the I-5…
    So BM – Basic error – >50% of service for tunnel is for commercial trucks which don’t use Fremont…benefiting those on I-5, not I-605…

  3. Linda Trevillian

    I first saw this story on Alhambra Source’s Facebook page. Here are the remarks I posted: “I, too, thought that a tunnel would be an effective way to connect the 710 freeway with the 210 in Pasadena. However, I am firmly convinced that there never would be 1) agreement about where to build the tunnel and 2) adequate funding for it that would not be solely the responsibility of the cities under which it would be built. I attended a community forum maybe 12-15 years ago at Cal State LA, sponsored by Gil Cedillo. It included participation from engineers and other experts from all over the world and illustrations of tunnels in Europe, Mexico and elswhere that were very compelling. But, without funding, there is no way this particular tunnel could be built. I also disagree strongly with Barbara Messina’s view about the heavy traffic on Fremont Avenue all the way through Alhambra. Sure, some people from other communities drive through Alhambra on Fremont. But, many more Alhambra residents use Fremont on at least a weekly – if not daily – basis. I know. I’m one of them. For me, the straws that broke the camel’s back were both caused by the Alhambra City Council. They are: the large residential development that’s under construction on the site of a former retirement home at 2400 South Fremont Avenue and the proposed development of the former industrial site on the west side of Fremont that would include a Lowe’s discount store (never mind that there’s a Home Depot less than a mile away and an Orchard Hardware Supply close by in South Pasadena) plus two six-story office buildings. Never mind that, despite testimony by experts that the necessary clean-up efforts were inadequate, the city cares so little about its residents that the Council voted unanimously to approve the project. With traffic already almost at a standstill much of the time already, that kind of development was foolish. The residential community will house 100+ families, and one can assume that most of them will have one or more vehicles. More traffic. And, if a citizens’ lawsuit against the city is unsuccessful, the Lowe’s/office building development will attract many more vehicles on a daily basis. One alternative (at least for me) has been Marengo Avenue, a few blocks east of Fremont. But, now the city has done it again: approved a 100-pus condominium development on the site of Sunny View Convalescent Hospital on Marengo at Valley Blvd. Never mind that there are about 240 mature trees that the developer wants to destroy, many 80 or more years old, in addition to a chapel that is nearly 100 years old. Never mind that these condominiums, like the residences on South Fremont, will do nothing to address the city’s woeful lack of AFFORDABLE housing. The closest alternative to Fremont Avenue for those who wish to go through Alhambra from south to north, or vice versa, or even just part way, will become as clogged as Fremont is now. I am disgusted at our city’s lack of vision and poor decisions.”

  4. So do Alhambrans get the hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars back that Messina et al spent on the 710 Day every year as well as other lobbying efforts in the name of a boondoggle?

    Messina’s claim that over development has not contributed to increased traffic in Alhambra is another big fat lie, one that she has perpetuated for decades. Messina has even used the promise of a 710 tunnel as an excuse to overdevelop.

    Messina’s quote “I learned the hard way that you don’t believe everything that people tell you,” was a lesson learned by Alhambra residents years ago as it pertains to the Alhambra political establishment. Karma?

    Good riddance 710 tunnel. Now let’s start getting real and begin addressing traffic in Alhambra with common sense solutions.

  5. I lived in Alhambra for 24 years and followed the 710 controversy as well as Messina’s efforts to complete the freeway. I saw the traffic become such an issue over the years that I moved to another part of San Gabriel Valley that had a more intelligent plan for growth. Alhambra has been shooting itself in the foot with the addition of thousands of high rise condos that changed the dynamics of the city and it was not for the better. Messina and the rest of the council never saw a development they did not like or vote for approval. Most of the developments were way over the code and were given special zoning variances that increased the profits for the developer and increased traffic in the city. Most recently the council unanimously voted to approve a massive Lowe’s development on Fremont,one of the North/South streets Messina cites as the problem area. The addition of thousands of new vehicles on the already congested corridor seemed like a bonehead decision and thankfully a local community group sued the developer and the city to stop this nonsense. The city council said there would be no impact on the traffic. So I too don’t believe everything that people tell me. Alhambra needs to move on and start planning for a 21st century city without the influence of the developers and their campaign contributions.

    1. Completely agree, Carlos. Moneyed interests (developers and city contractors) control the Alhambra political establishment. Alhambra has a government that is for special interests and by special interests.