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Metro board drops support for controversial 710 Freeway tunnel

The fight over how to connect the stub ends of two freeways has spawned anger and litigation for decades, pitting neighbor against neighbor in the San Gabriel Valley and nearby areas.

On Thursday, the proposed 710 Freeway tunnel — most recently the leading option — effectively died.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted unanimously to withdraw its support and funding for a five-mile, $3.2-billion tunnel through El Sereno, South Pasadena and Pasadena connecting the 710 and 210 freeways.

Instead, the board voted to spend $700 million on a range of transportation fixes to ease congestion and other problems arising from traffic spilling onto the streets of Alhambra at the 710’s abrupt northern terminus.

“This gets improvements out there now,” said Metro board Chairman John Fasana, a Duarte city councilman who had long supported the tunnel. “I’ve realized the tunnel is unfundable and would be built many years from now.”

The vote took place after more than two hours of public comment in a Metro boardroom packed with several hundred residents, representatives of community organizations and elected officials. Cheers went up from tunnel opponents when the voting was finished.

“To have a unanimous vote is a reflection of the mood in the boardroom,” said Jan Soohoo of La Cañada Flintridge, a member of the No 710 Action Committee. “We’ve been fighting and fighting for years just to get seven votes” — the minimum that tunnel foes needed to kill the idea.

Solving the missing link was a long-held dream of freeway boosters, who envisioned a more seamless system for moving goods and people. It was also supported by residents and leaders of some cities, led by Alhambra.

But it was consistently and vehemently opposed by, among others, residents of South Pasadena, who saw their historic residential neighborhoods threatened by any type of freeway extension. The L.A. neighborhoods of El Sereno and City Terrace also objected.

Board members said the vote represents a significant departure from relying on new highways to accommodate the region’s growing population and transportation demands.

“As a city and county, we’ve moved away from freeways,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Metro board member. “Voters don’t see freeways as meeting their transportation needs anymore.”

Officials said that without an estimated $700-million contribution from Metro, the chance of the California Department of Transportation funding and building a multibillion-dollar underground freeway from Alhambra to Pasadena was essentially nil.

Brian Kelly, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, said in a statement that he looked forward to working with the Legislature and the community after the vote. He noted that this is the direction the community and local leaders have urged for years.

The 710 corridor project obtained about $780 million through Measure R, the half-cent sales tax increase voters approved in 2008. Some of the money has already been spent on planning, studies and environmental work.

The motion approved Thursday would allocate $105 million of the remaining funds toward synchronized traffic signals, new meters on freeway ramps, capacity enhancements at three dozen intersections and local streets as well as incentives to encourage carpooling, transit use and staggered work schedules.

The board voted to defer decisions on other transportation options that will use the remaining funding until cities along the north 710 corridor and other interested parties can agree. Metro staff will report back in 90 days on a process to identify potential projects.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis, a Metro board member, said the vote will ensure that the disadvantaged communities of El Sereno, City Terrace and East Los Angeles will finally get the “desperately needed” traffic relief they deserve as identified by the tunnel’s environmental analysis.

Supporters of the tunnel stressed that it would have eased congestion, especially with truckers using the 710 to shuttle cargo to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“Having spent about 10-plus years in Alhambra and then also attending Cal State L.A., I have been putting up with the congestion at the end of the 710 for too long,” said Ralph Blunt, 67, now of Pasadena. “The tunnel was the best solution.”

Last week, a Metro staff report endorsed a 4.9-mile, $3.2-billion freeway tunnel as the most effective way to connect the two freeways.

The report gave the traffic management plan backed by Fasana and L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, also a Metro board member, a lower rating overall than the tunnel options.

Local road upgrades, the report stated, would do little to address congestion on surface streets and would have about the same effect as a tunnel on regional freeway traffic.

In response, Fasana and Barger put forward the motion to shift hundreds of millions of dollars in 710 project funding toward local street improvements and transportation alternatives. Fasana said the 710 extension had scant political support on the Metro board and a funding gap of more than $2.5 billion.

“I had long supported the tunnel, but I realized we haven’t been able to proceed with immediate traffic relief. What is on paper does not provide relief for commuters.” Fasana said.

San Gabriel Valley officials and advocates have complained for decades that the freeway’s abrupt ending on Valley Boulevard causes health and air problems.

During public comment, opponents of the 710 tunnel repeatedly called for alternatives and told the board that the project was an obsolete approach to solving the region’s traffic problems. It would disrupt neighborhoods, harm the environment and be too costly to build, they said.

“The motion is a good start,” Dr. Bill Sherman of South Pasadena told the board. “Like Cuba Gooding said in the movie ‘Jerry McGuire,’ ‘Show me the money.’ But there is no money. End it now.”

Alhambra Mayor Dave Mejia, whose city supported the tunnel project, said he now supports the board’s decision because people in the San Gabriel Valley and East Los Angeles have been struggling for years with traffic congestion.

“If the 710 money is going to stay in the area, I’m supporting the decision that was made,” Mejia said. “We are not going to fight. We are going to step up. We want to help all the communities, not just Alhambra.”

Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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