The Federal Highway Administration has suspended its support of the beleaguered plan to extend the Long Beach Freeway through South Pasadena and has ordered state officials to conduct a new environmental impact study on the project.
The decision was the latest setback for the state, which has been fighting local residents over the proposal for more than 50 years and is prohibited by a federal injunction from working on the freeway extension.
Preservationists and local activists, who say the freeway extension would destroy South Pasadena as a community, cheered the suspension and predicted hopefully that the state would decide not to spend the time and money needed to study the proposal again.
But Doug Failing, regional director for the California Department of Transportation, said he planned to do the study, which would take three to five years and cost several million dollars.
"The fact is, the transportation need in that corridor still exists," Failing said.
The $1-billion project would connect the heavily congested San Bernardino and Foothill freeways and close what state transportation officials say is one of the most critical gaps in the Los Angeles freeway system.
The project would extend the 710 from its current terminus near the San Bernardino Freeway in Alhambra to the Foothill Freeway, passing through Alhambra, South Pasadena and parts of Los Angeles and Pasadena. It would bisect South Pasadena, require the destruction of about 1,000 homes and other buildings and pass through or near at least 41 historical sites.
The route was proposed in 1949 by then-Gov. Earl Warren. Local opposition coalesced in the mid-'60s, when Caltrans held its first public hearings on the route. By the '70s, with the project still unbuilt, new federal and state laws required that an environmental impact report be prepared.
Several reports were done, and one was finally accepted in 1992. The Federal Highway Administration approved the project in 1998 on the basis of that report. But work was stalled soon afterward, under an injunction from a federal judge.
So much time has passed since then that, on Dec. 17, FHA Division Administrator Gary Hamby wrote to Caltrans Director Jeff Morales, stating that the 1992 report was too old.
"This is a huge victory," said South Pasadena Mayor Michael Cacciotti, holding up a wrapped gift box, which he said symbolized "the federal government's Christmas present."
Cacciotti and other freeway opponents predicted that the cash-strapped Caltrans -- which has a $1-billion backlog of projects -- will give up on the project, despite Failing's contention to the contrary.
"This decision is the stake in the heart of the 710 that we've been hoping for," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We applaud this action, which virtually assures that the 710 extension will never be built and that the communities in the corridor will be preserved intact."
Lori Irving, spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration, said that the call for a new environmental study should not be interpreted as a sign that the agency wants to kill the project. Rather, Irving said, the FHA would take a neutral stance until it has had a chance to review a new study.
"Any time we have a project that has not moved for more than three years it is our responsibility to do a formal reevaluation," Irving said.
Hamby cited several key concerns that had prompted the agency's decision.
Since the project was first studied, Hamby wrote in his Dec. 17 letter, 11 additional historical sites have been identified in or near the freeway's path. New air-quality regulations have gone into effect, the Gold Line has taken some commuters off the roads and the Alameda Corridor freight train route has opened, connecting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with rail yards near downtown L.A. without requiring use of the 710.
Moreover, he wrote, the state has failed to make interim transportation improvements that were required in the 1998 federal approval. While budget concerns and other factors have contributed to the delay, Hamby wrote, "key decision-makers did not expect this lack of progress almost six years after."
Longtime freeway opponent Elizabeth Madley welcomed Hamby's comments, but said she did not expect Caltrans to abandon the project. Madley, now 86, coordinated the first organized opposition to the project's South Pasadena leg in 1966, gathering 8,000 signatures in just three weeks.
"We were fighting for the life of the city," she said of her 38-year opposition to the freeway.
While pleased with Tuesday's news, Madley said she would remain vigilant -- and she urged other residents to do the same. "The big boys get going when the little boys go to sleep," she said.