Century Freeway--When It’s Born, an Era Will Die

Times Urban Affairs Writer

After nearly 30 years of planning, false starts and bitter litigation, the Century Freeway is finally taking shape along a 17.3-mile stretch from Los Angeles International Airport to the San Gabriel River Freeway in Norwalk.

The freeway is nearly five years into an accelerated construction schedule. Bridges, retaining walls and other basic structures--some already splashed with graffiti--have gone up or are under construction at more than a dozen sites. The entire project is to be finished--with luck, the California Department of Transportation says--by 1993.

The Century Freeway will almost certainly be the Los Angeles area’s last major freeway, the final chapter of a phenomenal highway construction program that began with the Pasadena Freeway nearly 50 years ago. It also is a freeway of many firsts and other superlatives:


- It is the most expensive urban freeway ever undertaken. The projected cost for the freeway and its related features is now $1.8 billion, but no one will be surprised if the final price turns out to be considerably more than $2 billion.

- It is, by almost any measure, the nation’s most litigated highway. Construction was at a standstill for nine years--from 1972 to 1981--while the courts sorted out hundreds of issues ranging from whether the freeway was needed at all, to complex environmental challenges that fundamentally altered the way it is being built.

- As a direct result of the litigation, it is the first freeway anywhere in which rail rapid transit lines and built-in bus lanes are planned and designed as integral parts. Another result of the litigation is that the traditional freeway portion of the project--the lanes used for regular traffic--has been slimmed down from 10 lanes to six.

- It is the first freeway anywhere in which federal highway funds are being used not just to build a roadway, but to build new housing to replace the homes that had to be bulldozed.

- Contributing to the freeway’s price tag will be some of the costliest interchanges ever built. The grand prize will go to the Los Angeles area’s first five-level interchange, at the junction of the Century and San Diego freeways. It will be as high as a seven-story building and will cost more than $200 million.

“Sensitive” may seem an odd adjective for a freeway, but that is the word planners use to describe the Century Freeway. As public-interest lawyer John Phillips puts it, the freeway has been “designed to help rebuild cities, rather than carve up vast sections of the urban area.”

Thus, the freeway plans include a variety of items far removed from highway construction, such as the housing replacement program, an advocate’s office where people with housing problems can go for help, a highly visible--and controversial--affirmative-action program, and a special employment center and apprenticeship-training program designed primarily to find jobs for residents of the freeway corridor, much of which is economically depressed.

Perhaps the single most remarkable aspect of the entire project is the housing program--a court-ordered attempt to replenish residential neighborhoods torn up by the freeway. Costing nearly $300 million, the program will provide more than 3,350 heavily subsidized single-family homes, condominiums and apartments for families displaced by the freeway--and for some others not touched by it at all but nevertheless in need of housing.

The housing program is intended to replace about half the more than 6,000 dwellings once located in the freeway’s path. Most of the original structures have been demolished by now, of course, and the few still standing are coming down almost daily.

Housing program, rail line, bus lanes, advocate’s office, affirmative-action program: All are vital components of the remarkable legal compromise, finally reached in 1981, that allowed construction to resume.

The court decree--worked out by Caltrans, the Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Sierra Club, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and other parties involved in the litigation--amounts to a construction plan for the freeway.

It spells out in minute detail how all the project’s various components are to be developed. For example, not only does it tell how the jobs and construction contracts are to be distributed among women and minority groups, it even specifies the makeup of the affirmative-action committee that oversees the process.

Non-freeway items, including the light rail line and housing program, have added nearly $500 million to the freeway-transit-way’s cost.

There have been some hitches. The freeway employment center, for instance, troubled by administrative changes, had registered about 10,000 prospective workers as of the end of 1985, but found Century Freeway jobs for fewer than 250.

And there has been plenty of carping to go around. The advocate’s office has freely and frequently criticized the administering public agencies, such as Caltrans, the state Housing and Community Development Department and the Federal Highway Administration, which pays its staff’s salaries.

Oscar Sharpe, who heads the advocate’s office, said people affected by the freeway deserve better treatment from these agencies, as shown by the nearly 5,000 cases that have come to the office’s attention. “It’s traumatic for the handicapped, the very poor, the elderly,” he said. “Softer handling, more compassion would help.”

Caltrans officials, meanwhile, generally eager all along to get on with construction, have found building a “sensitive” freeway to be an obstacle-filled and often frustrating process. Several of the officials speculated that there would have been far less disruption in the nine cities and unincorporated areas along the route if Caltrans had been able to quickly and simply build a freeway, instead of leaving the area afflicted with a crime-plagued, trash-strewn and partly cleared right of way for so long.

Still, for nearly a decade there were doubts that the freeway would ever be built. In the class-action lawsuit that triggered U.S. District Judge Harry Pregerson’s injunction in 1972, freeway fighters along the route, joined by the Sierra Club, the NAACP and other groups, demanded that highway engineers follow federal and state environmental laws or drop the project.

Actual freeway construction had not yet begun, but Caltrans for years had been buying property, moving people and tearing down buildings.

Branch chief Don Cross, a 28-year Caltrans veteran, recalled the lawsuit’s demoralizing effect.

“I had just joined the Century Freeway team and boom!--the injunction hit,” he said. “It was a dark moment. We weren’t sure we were going to have a freeway.”

Public-interest lawyer Phillips, whose nonprofit operation has collected well over $2 million in legal fees in its 14 years of involvement with the freeway, believes that the long wait has been beneficial. “Caltrans could have built just a freeway, but . . . the days of the 1950s and 1960s when that was done are gone. When you compare what was going to be built with what is being built--well, there’s no comparison.”

The light rail line, which adds $194 million to the freeway’s overall cost, is a case in point. Its development marks the first time such a facility is being built as part of a freeway--an idea suggested many times since the Los Angeles area’s freeway system began taking shape.

“You’re getting a pretty inexpensive rail line,” Phillips pointed out, citing for comparison the $3.4-billion projected cost of Los Angeles’ proposed Metro Rail and the $685 million estimated for the Los Angeles-Long Beach light rail line. Each line is to be approximately the same length as the Century Freeway rail line.

The plan is to build the light rail line’s 10 stations in the freeway median, next to the high-occupancy vehicle lane for buses and car pools.

Although rail projects rarely hit their estimated ridership, Century Freeway-Transitway planners believe that the rail line, operating 20 hours a day, will carry 100,000 passengers a day by the year 2005. By comparison, San Diego’s new trolley line, which is considered highly successful, carries about 20,000 daily passengers between downtown San Diego and the Mexican border. The rail route is about the same length as the Century Freeway.

Planners project that the freeway will carry 180,000 vehicles daily near the freeway’s junction with the San Diego Freeway and 195,000 between the Long Beach and San Gabriel River freeways.

James McManus, Caltrans’ new Century Freeway chief, said the big push now is to get construction projects under contract.

Ordinarily a 17-mile urban freeway would be built by a dozen or so major contractors, but the Century Freeway projects have been broken down into 84 jobs, many of them small enough to be feasible for smaller companies owned by women and minorities.

Caltrans estimates that businesses owned by minorities and women will perform nearly $500-million worth of work by the time the freeway, transitway and housing programs are finished.

The first stretch of the freeway to open, McManus said--probably in 1991--will be a one-mile stretch at the freeway’s western end. This piece of the Century Freeway will be built as a viaduct starting from the San Diego Freeway and touching down on Los Angeles International Airport property at Imperial Highway, just west of Sepulveda Boulevard.

Even before it is linked to the rest of the freeway, McManus said, this first stretch will help ease traffic at the airport and around the big aerospace plants in the El Segundo area.

For the rest of the freeway, the opening date hinges on a notorious site in Lynwood near the route’s midpoint, where the Century and Long Beach freeways will meet.

The site contains the Willco hazardous waste dump, which has been a stumbling block since 1982, when Caltrans targeted the Long Beach-Century interchange as the freeway’s first major project.

At first, Caltrans planned to remove only half the dangerous wastes and cover the remainder with plastic to save money. It reversed itself under a barrage of protests, then in early 1984 suspended the cleanup job after spending $12 million, more than twice the agreed amount.

Caltrans expects to resume the cleanup later this year, but if there are additional hitches, it would delay work on the interchange, and the freeway’s opening by 1993 would be jeopardized.

Of all the cities in the freeway corridor, Lynwood perhaps best typifies the official attitude toward the freeway. City Manager Charles Gomez put it this way:

“We all know the good, the bad, the ugly. It was pretty bad six years ago. It was depressing. Houses boarded up. No hope of anything happening. (But) the anxiety that was once there has fairly well dissipated.”

Still, there is a nagging worry about that the entire program--the freeway, replenishment housing, the light rail line--might falter because of slashed federal funding. Although local taxes are paying for the rail line, it would go nowhere without the freeway.

Initially, the Reagan Administration opposed using federal highway money for housing. Now the full funding for the project has been approved.

While Caltrans officials see no immediate threat to the Century Freeway’s money supply, they concede that they have no way of telling what damage automatic budget reductions, such as those imposed by the Gramm-Rudman Act, could do in two or three years.

“The key is to keep things moving,” McManus said.