Funding Is Not the Only Hurdle to Fixing the 710

Times Staff Writers

Incomplete and crumbling, burdened with outdated, accident-prone interchanges and the heaviest truck traffic in the country, the Long Beach Freeway could easily be the poster road for Southern California freeway woes.

For motorists including Ana Verduzco, 31, of Downey, the drive isn't just congested but frightening, so much so that she favors surface streets. Debris from a big rig shattered her windshield, and there have been other close calls en route to her job in Long Beach.

"One time I got on the freeway here ... and a truck from the 710, instead of letting me in, he almost smashed me," she said. "I was really honking, I was like: 'Hello, I'm in this little black box.' "

But despite the 710 Freeway's problems, fixing the road has been stalled for years by lack of money and residents opposed to bulldozing homes and increased air pollution.

The stalemate along a crumbling corridor vital to the nation's economy points to a substantial hurdle facing the governor's plan to invest $222 billion on the state's infrastructure: It's not just funding that has blocked freeway projects, it's also politics.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's road-building campaign, if successful, could provide billions of dollars needed for improvements. Will Kempton, appointed by Schwarzenegger to direct the California Department of Transportation, on Friday called the 710 Freeway "a superb candidate for some of those bond proceeds."

"There is no question," he said, "that if we are concerned about the economy of the state, there has to be some attention given to the I-710 corridor."

But Kempton said money alone would not overcome community opposition.

A $5.5-billion plan approved last year by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that would include the addition of truck lanes to 18 miles of the freeway between the Port of Long Beach and East Los Angeles, has faced continued criticism from those who live near the freeway even as others say it is critical to expand capacity on the roadway.

Community activists in freeway-adjacent neighborhoods -- which include some of the poorest in the county -- mobilized three years ago when the MTA and other regional agencies began serious planning for an overhaul of the 710 Freeway that initially proposed demolition of nearly 700 homes and 259 businesses.

The power of community fury became clear a year later when an ambitious $3.4-billion plan to widen the 101 Freeway through the San Fernando Valley was quickly withdrawn by Caltrans amid protests from residents who carried signs reading "Don't Ruin Our neighborhood."

But although the 101 Freeway is a key Southern California artery, it doesn't handle the kind of heavy commercial traffic that the 710 Freeway does.

Long Beach City Councilman Frank Colonna said the more than 20 miles of pockmarked 710 Freeway are "functionally obsolete."

The road carries heavy truck traffic from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation's largest seaport complex, and has seen little traffic relief despite the opening in 2002 of the $2.5-billion Alameda Corridor, which was designed to divert port traffic away from the freeway and onto a specially designed cargo rail line.

Instead, the 710 Freeway has continued to take a pounding as well as dole one out. In recent years the freeway has averaged more than 2,000 accidents each year, more than 600 involving trucks, according to a statewide database of accidents. Included in those collisions are hundreds of accidents caused not by other vehicles but by road debris, often shed by trucks.

Truck traffic merging to other highways from the 710 Freeway has created dangerous intersections. The junction of the 710 and 5 freeways is historically among the state's deadliest in terms of truck accidents.

Harry Swintek, 57, of Westchester said his regular commute to Commerce also means regular realignments for his car. "The road's atrocious. It needs repairs big time," said Swintek, who works for an auto parts supplier.

Colonna, a supporter of improvements to the road, said there are not enough lanes to handle the volume of traffic. Last year, he said, an asphalt overlay was needed because of damage caused by trucks.

"It was never built to handle the type of traffic that we have been witnessing with the geometrical expansion at the ports," he said.

But for those who live alongside the freeway, there are other concerns beyond quickly moving traffic or improved safety.

Long Beach City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga, who represents neighborhoods that abut the freeway, said the governor needs to dedicate just as much money to environmental cleanup as to transportation projects.

"We are the first casualties of this diesel death zone," she said. "Unless he comes to the table with as much fervor and excitement and money in terms of environmental cleanup ... the community is not going to buy it."

Precedent exists for blocking expansion of the 710 Freeway. Residents north of the freeway have long prevailed in their fight to halt its extension through South Pasadena, leaving the road mislabeled with signs that say it leads to Pasadena, when it actually ends in Alhambra.

"It's a different generation from the road-building era of the '50s and '60s, when most of these highways began to take shape," said Paul Lewis, a former researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, where he studied urban development.

Lewis, now a political science professor at Arizona State University, said consensus on the need to build major highways "broke down over environmental effects and neighborhood destruction. So the set of hurdles both political and procedural that have been put in front of highway projects are a lot more significant than they were 40 years ago."

The barriers have been so high that four years ago, when they opened the first segment of a planned 28-mile extension of the Foothill Freeway in Rancho Cucamonga, Caltrans officials said the road was the last major urban freeway project on the drawing board. Future efforts, they said, would concentrate on road maintenance and adding lanes where possible.

Still, the day after the governor's State of the State speech seemed to significantly improve the likelihood of changes to the 710 Freeway, some residents living in its shadow were dismayed.

Roger Holman, who lives in the Coolidge Triangle neighborhood in North Long Beach, which sits right up against the 710 Freeway, said he was concerned that the governor's words were just code for expanding freeways and knocking down homes.

Even with the latest proposal no longer calling for 300 of their homes to be taken, expansion plans would affect the people in his neighborhood. Already, they coexist with the heavily traveled road whose looming retaining wall does little to block the constant rattling and rumbling of truck and car traffic.

Holman said he fears the commitment of state officials to moving goods out of the ports appeared "a lot stronger than their commitment to making sure it doesn't affect the quality of life or people's health."

But some commuters on the corridor said improvements were past due. Stewart Laidlaw, 53, a professor of medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said Friday that he backed plans to build separate lanes for trucks.

Laidlaw, a 20-year resident of Long Beach, said he tries to limit his driving on the 710 Freeway to non-rush hours. Even then, he said, driving alongside oversize big rigs gives him the creeping feeling that "I'm a flat tire away from being history."

Times staff writers Anna Gorman and Deborah Schoch, and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

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