Federal highway officials have signaled that they plan to approve the controversial Long Beach Freeway extension under certain conditions--marking the federal government's most significant action on the long-idled project in decades.
A draft of a Federal Highway Administration report states that planners have adequately addressed environmental and other problems posed by the 6.2-mile extension, which would split South Pasadena and course through parts of Los Angeles and Pasadena, linking the San Bernardino and Foothill freeways.
The draft document, a copy of which was obtained by The Times on Monday, will be presented to officials from the affected communities at a meeting Friday in Washington, D.C. The session will include representatives from Pasadena, South Pasadena, Alhambra and Los Angeles, plus congressional representatives and officials from several agencies.
A highway administration official described the document as "discussion points" for Friday's meeting, but declined to comment further.
An accompanying memo from Anthony R. Kane, acting deputy administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, made no mention of when a final decision on the $1.4-billion freeway extension would be made.
Among the mammoth project's most formidable hurdles are funding and any future lawsuits by opponents.
The document, although worded in conditional language and spare on detail, marks the first indication of the federal government's thinking on the issue after three years of review and decades of debate among state and local officials, residents and environmental and preservation groups.
The document does not indicate a timetable for construction of the freeway, which was stalled in 1965 and has become a complicated and emotion-packed issue for the communities it would affect. The freeway project, which would plow through several historic districts, displace more than 900 homes and destroy more than 6,000 trees, has been opposed by preservationists and environmentalists across the nation.
"It's time to move on and make a decision," said James Drago, spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, which would oversee the project. "This issue has dragged on long enough."
Pasadena Mayor Chris Holden, whose city officially supports the freeway extension, called the draft a "significant" milestone. "Now the question is, [in] what decade will it be constructed?"
In South Pasadena, where opposition to the freeway extension has been most fierce, Mayor Paul Zee said the battle is far from over and that his city is prepared to continue to fight the project in court.
"I don't want the people of South Pasadena to be afraid," Zee said. "In my opinion we are not getting one inch closer to building a freeway."
The report also lays out a series of interim changes to key roadways near the proposed route, including Fair Oaks and Raymond avenues, Arroyo Parkway and Valley Boulevard, to allow a larger volume of faster-moving traffic until the freeway extension is built. Among the changes: restriping Fremont Avenue in South Pasadena to create more lanes, rebuilding two intersections--Fair Oaks Avenue at Huntington Drive and Valley Boulevard at Fremont Avenue--and building two new bridges to improve north-south traffic.
Even if ultimately approved, the freeway project still would face substantial obstacles. South Pasadena officials, who sued in 1973, have threatened a second, far more sweeping "Armageddon lawsuit" if the project moves forward. The city would probably file a federal lawsuit challenging the environmental impact of the project. Both sides of the freeway debate say such a lawsuit could last at least two years.
Another pending suit challenges the project on behalf of a group of residents of the largely Latino neighborhood of El Sereno that is allied with several environmental and civil rights groups. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other organizations have charged that the proposed extension is designed to minimize impact on areas of Pasadena and South Pasadena that are predominantly white.
Alhambra has thrown itself into the legal struggle in favor of the freeway, arguing that delays mean that thousands of cars flood the city's streets each day.
Alhambra City Manager Julio Fuentes said he was pleased by the direction that federal officials seemed to be headed, adding that the draft report appears to be an effort to give all of the opposing parties some of what they want.
The Federal Highway Administration "is trying to find a solution where everyone walks away with something," Fuentes said. "The document is good, but it needs to be tweaked and tightened. We need a timeline for the freeway's construction."
Fuentes noted, however, that because the document is a draft, it leaves federal officials room to alter the plans. He said the proposed changes to traffic on surface streets would need to be completed in the next few years.
He said that if the cities agree to road improvements that would bring more and faster traffic to their streets, they should receive "ironclad guarantees" that the freeway will be built.
The draft lists a broad set of conditions that must be met before the freeway project can move forward, including a finding that the project is still needed, that there is adequate funding and that an acceptable plan is in place for relocating residents of the more than 900 homes that stand in its proposed path.
Another condition for approval requires Caltrans to set up advisory groups of residents in each of the communities to consider ways to reduce the freeway's effect on everything from safety and visual impact to neighborhood preservation and parks.
The project also will face another sizable, and possibly determining, hurdle: money. So far, the state has set aside funding only for design, and not for construction. The lion's share of the projected $1.4-billion cost still must be allocated by Congress.
"It said in the proposal they want to see the financial plan," said Zee, South Pasadena's mayor. "That means they will have to come up with a sound financial plan. To that I say: Show me the money."
The document continues: "Given the high cost of the project and the sequential steps required for each segment to be advanced, it is acknowledged that project completion is likely to extend over a long period of time."
Lawyers for a group of El Sereno residents, who sued the state on grounds that they received unequal treatment when environmental effects of the freeway were considered, said federal approval of the project could make it harder to settle the court case without trial.
"That would send Caltrans a message [that] everything possible to mitigate this freeway has been done," said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney with Environmental Justice Resource Network.
In response to that lawsuit, Caltrans officials last week announced that they have sketched an alternative design that would send the freeway through El Sereno below ground level, rather than above. The plan has yet to be finalized.
Meszaros said she would like federal officials to specify conditions for construction of the freeway through the community before granting approval.
"Our view is if you are going to build it, build it right," she said.
"If we don't like what [the Federal Highway Administration] is doing," Meszaros said, "we'll add the feds to the lawsuit.'
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Freeway Proposal Chronology
Highlights is the long-running saga of the proposed extension of the Long Beach Freeway:
* 1965: Long Beach Freeway reaches southern San Gabriel Valley at San Bernardino Freeway. It is intended to run through South Pasadena along Meridian Avenue and connect with Foothill Freeway in Pasadena.
* 1973: South Pasadena, with other organizations, files federal lawsuit, and judge issues injunction halting freeway construction in the town until state environmental reviews are conducted.
* 1977: State releases final environmental impact statement and recommends scaled-down, four-lane freeway. Federal highway officials balk. All work on the project stops.
* 1983: Federal council on preservation suggest alternate routes to avoid destruction of historic properties.
* 1984: California Transportation Commission accepts final environmental impact report, which supports the Meridian route. Planners later propose alternate route, called the Meridian variation, to avoid some historic sites.
* 1989: The National Trust for Historic Preservation puts South Pasadena on a list of America's 11 "endangered places."
* 1992: Gov. Pete Wilson's administration orders the freeway built. Federal highway officials approve the environmental study.
* 1994: State Transportation Commission approves Meridian variation.
* 1995: El Sereno activists file federal race discrimination lawsuit against the state, alleging that proposed route through their Eastside neighborhood lacks noise mitigation given to South Pasadena and Pasadena. Caltrans later shifts freeway route to spare newly designated historic district in El Sereno.
* 1997: Federal government prepares draft report backing freeway extension, subject to myriad conditions.