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710 Freeway tunnel proposal resurfaces

It’s the freeway controversy that just won’t quit.

The fight over whether to finish the 710 Freeway -- which stops just short of South Pasadena -- has been going on for more than half a century, with the records in a 1998 federal court case so voluminous that they filled some 500 cardboard file boxes.

Now transit officials are opening another chapter in the controversy: They have begun exploratory drilling to determine the feasibility of building a tunnel to link the unfinished 710 to the 210 or possibly another freeway.

The California Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are conducting boring and seismic reflection activities at 33 sites throughout the study area, which includes Alhambra, Glendale, La Canada Flintridge, northeast Los Angeles, Monterey Park, Pasadena, San Marino and South Pasadena.

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Douglas Failing, Caltrans director for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, called the study “a key piece” in determining whether the freeway project can move forward.

Already, combatants in the freeway fight have drawn battle lines.

Alhambra Mayor Barbara Messina, who has spent 27 years fighting to complete the freeway, said building a tunnel “is the only way it’s ever going to happen.” Putting the freeway 250 or more feet underground is supporters’ best chance at overcoming the opposition to building it through residential neighborhoods.

“It’s not taking homes. It’s not taking trees,” Messina said. “There is no real reason anymore for people to be opposed to it.”

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But longtime South Pasadena resident and 710 extension opponent Joanne Nuckols called the tunnel proposal “a really bad idea” and the exploratory study “a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The 710 extension has been in limbo for years: In 2003, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its 1998 approval of a court-stalled surface route linking the northern terminus of the 710, at the boundary of Los Angeles and Alhambra, to the 210 Freeway.

South Pasadena and other opponents had kept the project tied up in courts for years, while Alhambra and its allies have long battled for the freeway extension as a solution to traffic and air pollution problems where the freeway ends at Valley Boulevard and dumps about 100,000 vehicles a day onto surface streets.

Officials hope to finish the 710 tunnel technical study by May and to have some answers regarding a tunnel’s feasibility by the end of the year.

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If officials decide to pursue a tunnel, they would need to conduct public hearings, pick a route, conduct extensive environmental studies, secure funding, pass muster with federal and state authorities and, as a practical matter at least, build community support before construction could begin.

Officials in South Pasadena, which has led the long fight against a freeway extension that would slice through some of its quiet, leafy neighborhoods of historic homes, are going along with the study but say their cooperation should not be construed as support for a tunnel, which has yet to undergo environmental review.

Some activists are opposed even to a feasibility study. And the cities of South Pasadena and La Canada Flintridge have filed suit objecting to the inclusion of $780 million in freeway tunnel-building funds in Measure R, the half-cent sales tax hike for transit that Los Angeles County voters approved in November.

Nonetheless, supporters of efforts to complete the 710 see tunneling as a possible solution to a standoff that has left a 6.2-mile gap between the two freeways and set neighboring cities against one another.

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Caltrans is scheduled to make a presentation on the tunnel study to the South Pasadena City Council at its regular meeting Wednesday.

Since the 2003 withdrawal of federal approval for the surface extension, interest in a tunnel -- once rejected as unrealistic -- has resurfaced. The MTA did a limited survey of a proposal to build a 4.5-mile multilane road under South Pasadena and Pasadena to provide most of the link between the 710 and the 210. Officials estimated then that it would cost at least $3 billion and take 11 years to build.

But the current technical survey, begun earlier this month as part of an $11.5-million, two-year feasibility study, has been expanded to five zones for several alternatives. Any of those could also be problematic, including tunneling to link the 710 to the 2 Freeway on the west or to the 605 on the east. The latter, about an 11-mile route, would roughly parallel the 10 Freeway.

Caltrans’ Failing said the other possibilities were added to help ensure that the study is conducted in a “route-neutral manner,” meaning that officials will explore “any feasible alternative.”

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Anti-freeway activists contend that the tunnel would create a new set of problems for their communities and said traffic problems could be better addressed by measures other than extending the freeway.

“It really doesn’t solve the transportation problems,” said South Pasadena City Councilman Richard Schneider. “It’s really not for commuters; it’s for trucks coming out of the harbor and Long Beach.”

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge), who is skeptical of Caltrans’ claims of an objective feasibility study, recently introduced legislation that would require the agency to sell the roughly 500 properties it acquired years ago along the surface route in the Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno and in South Pasadena and Pasadena and use the proceeds for the state’s cash-strapped university systems.

South Pasadena has also called for the release of the Caltrans-owned properties.

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Abdi Saghafi, the Caltrans project manager for the 710 corridor, responding to South Pasadena’s call to sell the properties and return them to the tax rolls, said the agency would not favor releasing the properties until the extension question is settled.

It’s against this backdrop that the tunnel technical study is going on. The study is designed to provide analyses of soil and sub-surface conditions at depths of 250 feet or deeper.

Failing said advances in tunnel technology in the last 30 years have made it possible to build safely and even relatively economically in areas once considered impossible.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The route to a tunnel

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Key events in the 710 Freeway extension battle:

1951: California Legislature maps out the first route.

1964: Route modified as the “Meridian route,” the first of three modifications through South Pasadena.

1973: South Pasadena and allies win an injunction blocking the extension pending an environmental study.

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1989: National Trust for Historic Preservation declares South Pasadena one of America’s 11 “endangered places” and indicates it would join the court fight against the extension.

1992: Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration announces it will try to get the injunction lifted and build the extension. The federal government accepts the final version of the state’s several environmental impact reports.

1998: The Federal Highway Administration approves the project based on the final version, but South Pasadena and allies go back to court and, the next year, win another injunction.

2003: The Bush administration rescinds its support of the court-stalled project, saying the data are outdated and require a new environmental study. Transportation officials begin revisiting the possibility of a tunnel, an idea earlier rejected as not feasible.

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2006: Three possible routes are proposed for twin 4.5-mile tunnels to connect the 710 with the 210 after a Metropolitan Transportation Authority preliminary survey deems such a project feasible.

2009: Caltrans and the MTA begin a tunnel technical study of underground conditions along several additional possible routes to determine which, if any, are feasible.

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Source: California Department of Transportation and Times research

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