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Route in Dispute for 25 Years : State Ready to Move Ahead on Freeway

Times Staff Writer

It’s crunch time in South Pasadena, which for 25 years has been fighting plans to run the last link of the Long Beach Freeway through the middle of town.

Caltrans last week presented federal and state agencies with a final environmental impact statement on the $425-million freeway project, a 6.2-mile extension through the El Sereno area of Los Angeles and downtown South Pasadena, and they are expected to act quickly, state officials say.

“We hope to have the whole process wrapped up by some time in February,” said Jeff Bingham, Caltrans environmental branch chief in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

After that, said Bingham, Caltrans can go into “hard design,” preparing foot-by-foot plans for the 8-lane corridor, roughly following Meridian Avenue, to link the Long Beach Freeway with the Pasadena and Foothill freeways. Demolition of structures could begin in as little as two years, he said.

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The so-called Meridian variation is the latest of at least half a dozen routes that Caltrans has considered.

‘Big-League’ Situation

The City Council geared up for a last-ditch battle by hiring a $4,000-a-month Sacramento-based lobbyist. “It’s time we got some big-league help,” said Councilwoman Evelyn Fierro, who proposed the measure that the council unanimously approved last week. “This is a big-league ball game, and we’re a little city.”

The firm of Ochoa & Sillas will work with state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), both of whom represent South Pasadena, to mount political pressure against the project.

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The legacy of 30 years of planning for the link has been one of missed opportunities and favoritism for South Pasadena’s neighbors, contends Ralph Ochoa, senior partner in the firm.

“There were state officials 20 years ago who didn’t even realize that South Pasadena was an incorporated city,” said Ochoa, former chief of staff to then-Speaker of the Assembly Leo McCarthy. “But there are people in state government today who are willing to listen to some of the history.”

Alhambra, Pasadena and Los Angeles have all been pressing for completion of the freeway, contending that the absence of the final link has flooded their streets with traffic.

Preparing for Court Fight

The City Council, which contends that Caltrans never seriously considered an alternative westerly route for the freeway, is prepared to take its case to court. “It’s not that we don’t want a freeway, we just don’t want it through the middle of town,” said Fierro.

All five members of the council have indicated that they would prefer a “no-build” option to Caltrans’ preferred route, which would displace 3,000 residents and 24 businesses.

The final environmental statement must first be reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration, whose advisory body on historic preservation recommended against the project in 1984 because it would destroy too many historic structures. Since then, Caltrans has modified the route of the planned freeway to bypass many older buildings.

After federal endorsement, Caltrans must seek approval by the California Transportation Commission. Both federal and state agencies could suggest changes, Bingham added.

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Ochoa & Sillas, which successfully represented the city of Los Gatos, in Northern California, in defeating a move 4 years ago to put a women’s prison there, has been hired for 3 months, said City Manager John Bernardi. After that, the firm may be retained on a month-to-month basis.

“If we don’t see any progress after the first 90 days,” Bernardi said, “there may not be any point in continuing in this direction.”


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