South Pasadena tunnel plan may advance

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to end a decades-old standoff over freeway expansion, Los Angeles County transportation officials are set to take a small but significant step today toward tunneling under South Pasadena to connect the 710 and 210 freeways.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board is expected to give the go-ahead for preliminary engineering and technical studies for building an underground freeway.

A vocal group of South Pasadena residents opposes any effort to close a 6.2-mile gap in the 710 Freeway between Alhambra and Pasadena, including this one. But the tunnel idea seems to be taking hold in surrounding cities.

"This community, along with every other community in the San Gabriel Valley, is negatively impacted by air pollution, traffic congestion on local streets and lost family time spent idling on freeways every day of the week," the Monterey Park City Council wrote in a letter urging the MTA board to fund the studies.

City council members from Alhambra, El Monte, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Gabriel, San Marino and South El Monte want the freeway gap closed -- any way possible.

An estimated 100,000 cars a day empty onto Alhambra streets near where the 710 Freeway ends at Valley Boulevard.

The state Department of Transportation has been locked in legal battles with South Pasadena and its residents for decades over the proposed demolition of homes to extend the freeway. A few years ago, Caltrans and the MTA joined to examine the feasibility of building tunnels as a possible alternative.

A preliminary study last year found that building twin 4.5-mile tunnels to connect the freeways was physically, environmentally and financially feasible. The project would cost about $3 billion and take nine to 11 years to complete.

Some MTA board members are pushing the proposal forward. But Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who heads the MTA, expressed concern about dumping millions of dollars into studying a project without a firm board commitment to build it.

"I don't want to spent $13 million on studies if we are going to get politically impotent at the end of the day," Molina told her colleagues during a committee meeting last week.

If there is no political will to extend the freeway, Molina advised MTA board members to consider pulling the plug now and spend the money on projects more likely to be built.

Board members John Fasana and Richard Katz, among others, support the tunnel studies. Completing the 710 Freeway would cut traffic in downtown Los Angeles by 20%, Katz said.

Currently, commuters traveling between Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley must go through downtown L.A. or get off the freeway and travel through San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods.

"For 30 years, the tail has wagged the dog on this thing," said Katz, a board appointee of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "It is time to bring relief to the rest of the county."

But La Canada Flintridge officials oppose further study of the tunnel idea. And city officials in South Pasadena and Pasadena are wary of the MTA study process. They fear that further review would prematurely commit the agency to building the tunnels.

La Canada Flintridge city leaders question why the MTA would put any money toward a project that, they say, would "worsen traffic for communities in adjacent areas" and adversely affect communities along the 210 Freeway, including La Crescenta and Glendale.

South Pasadena Mayor Philip Putman called the preliminary feasibility study completed last year inadequate. He wants the MTA to define the project's scope, including proposed routes, so it can be properly assessed.

"This analysis has to be done before we go into the environmental study," Putman said.

MTA board members assured him that the engineering and technical studies would not automatically result in a formal environmental review but that the data collected for them could be used in a future environment impact report.

"We anticipate doing a lot of technical work," said Doug Failing, regional director for the state Department of Transportation, the project's lead agency.

The studies would take at least 18 months to complete.

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