After almost 30 years of dickering about where the final leg of the Long Beach Freeway should be laid, an increasing number of residents are deciding that the answer should be "nowhere."
"No build," long considered the least defensible of the dozen or so options advanced for the uncompleted freeway, becomes more and more appealing as traffic in Southern California gets worse and worse, its proponents contend. The freeway now ends abruptly at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra.
"You can only put so many gallons of water into a bucket," Alva Lee Arnold, chairman of Citizens United to Save South Pasadena, said of traffic in the area. "Beyond a certain point, you can't fit another drop."
City officials have maintained that a no-build position would, in effect, deal the city out of negotiations on where the freeway would be. "It would be irresponsible to say, 'Take your shovels and go home, we don't want to hear about a freeway at all,' " said Councilman James Hodge.
If the freeway segment is ever completed, it will become the long-planned 6.2-mile link between the 10, 110 and 210 freeways. The state Department of Transportation is putting the finishing touches on the project's final environmental impact statement, after recent consultations with the Federal Highway Administration, which would provide most of the estimated $425 million cost.
Caltrans officials say they expect federal approval by August for the proposed Meridian Variation, a freeway link that would cut through South Pasadena, roughly following Meridian Avenue.
"We've resolved all the issues that (federal officials) raised in their comments," said Jeff Bingham, Caltrans' chief of environmental planning. "Now we're just completing the final report, which we'll be forwarding to them shortly."
Nevertheless, the no-builders, in and out of South Pasadena, have been asserting themselves vociferously in recent months. For example:
* Longtime no-build proponent state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who represents South Pasadena, introduced an amendment in May that would effectively scuttle the freeway extension by prohibiting state funds for any state highway in Los Angeles County planned for historically significant sites or parks or recreation areas. The amendment, approved by the Senate, awaits action by the Assembly Transportation Committee.
* The South Pasadena City Council, which had favored completing the freeway, although not along the Meridian route, for the first time raised the possibility that it might go with the no-build option. In its most recent official statement, the council called for more study of alternates, after which it would decide whether to "endorse or reject no extension of the freeway by any route."
* One City Council member decried the strategy of solving transportation problems by building more freeways. "Wouldn't it be horrendous," said Councilwoman Evelyn Fierro, "if 10 years from now, as they're laying the final piece of concrete in South Pasadena, it was already a given that freeways were passe?"
* A number of preservation groups have come out against the freeway, claiming that the destruction of historic houses in the northern part of the city is too high a price to pay. The groups include the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the California Preservation Foundation.
* Arnold, a former mayor, resigned her positions as chairman of the Committee for the Westerly Route and as a member of the city's transportation commission to start the new organization dedicated to stopping the freeway. Begun in March, Citizens United to Save South Pasadena has 150 dues-paying members, she said.
Defensive About Position
Local no-builders are still defensive about adopting what once had been considered a fringe position.
"Don't give the impression that we're kooks or obstructionists," said Arnold, 69, who was South Pasadena mayor for one-year terms in 1977 and 1983.
"We're just digging in our heels to save our town," added Mary Ann Parada, another former leader of the pro-westerly route committee who joined with the no-build forces.
They have no finished blueprint for an alternative for the freeway. But they contend that the state and affected cities can use a variety of alternatives, including light-rail commuter trains, restrictions on truck traffic, car-pool incentives and traffic-light synchronization, to solve the area's transportation problems.
"As long as everybody is waiting for the completion of the Long Beach Freeway to solve their problems, they're not doing anything about them," said Arnold.
Residents of neighboring Alhambra scoff at the suggestion that the traffic hemorrhaging into their streets from the truncated Long Beach Freeway can be stanched by tinkering with traffic-flow patterns or distant light-rail projects. "It's a lot of bunk," said Alhambra City Manager Kevin Murphy. "It's wishful thinking."
Atlantic Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare through the middle of Alhambra, already carries 30,000 cars a day, he said. "Caltrans has projected that, without the freeway, that will increase to 73,000," Murphy said. "It's wonderful for people to say, 'Let's do light rail.' They might as well stick their heads in the sand. The reality is that people are driving cars, and they're going to do so for another 50 or 60 years."
Regional planners have long discussed a number of commuter rail proposals for the San Gabriel Valley, including a Metro Rail branch from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena, a light-rail line along the median of the Long Beach Freeway and conversion of the El Monte-to-Los Angeles busway on the San Bernardino Freeway to a commuter rail line. But none is even near the design stage.
Caltrans' Bingham described other proposed alternatives, such as synchronizing traffic lights and turning key local thoroughfares into one-way corridors, as "a Band-Aid solution."
"We give those ideas considerable ink in the environmental impact statement," he said. "The conclusion is that they would be disastrous for the region and the corridor cities. Congestion is just going to worsen over the next 20 years."
Caltrans' preferred route would cut through El Sereno and downtown South Pasadena before linking with the 110 Freeway, and continuing north to the 210. It would require demolishing 1,267 homes, some of them classified as historic.
Bingham said the last questions about the project raised by the Federal Highway Administration, which would provide 86% of the funding, have been answered by Caltrans. He said a so-called record of decision, indicating final approval, could be issued by the federal agency's regional director by the end of the year. That step, along with approval of the California Transportation Commission, would signify the end of the environmental process, he said.
"Construction contracts could be let by 1992," he said, and the freeway could be completed by 1999.
Before construction can begin, however, the state must apply to remove a 16-year-old federal injunction requiring environmental review. City officials have said they will contest removal of the injunction if Caltrans goes with the Meridian Variation. The city has hired San Francisco lawyer Antonio Cosby-Rossman, who specializes in environmental law, to represent it.
Arnold's group contends that building the freeway would unalterably change "a quaint little town" and add to the region's air pollution, and it wouldn't solve the traffic problem. "All over Southern California, they've been laying more cement, but nobody's moving any faster," said Parada.
The group estimates that the cost of the project could be $1 billion, money that could be used for alternatives.
Bingham acknowledged that cost projections were in 1986 dollars and that expenses would exceed $425 million. "But I don't think inflation will be anywhere near $1 billion," he said.
Torres said his main concern is to protect South Pasadena and El Sereno, the two communities that would bear the brunt of the demolition. "At some point, we're going to have to say that we're not going to destroy communities again," he said.
Many proposed alternatives to freeway construction, such as traffic-light synchronization and making key avenues and boulevard one-way during rush hours are not new but are untried in the region, Torres said.
"They're ideas that have been around for years," he said. "They need to be explored. We can't simply go back to a 30-year-old concept and think about extending the Long Beach Freeway to solve all our traffic problems."