Interstate 710: A chance to close an L.A. freeway gap

On Google Maps, it looks like a severed limb: Sticking out from the intersection of Highway 134 and Interstate 210 in Pasadena is the stump of a freeway heading south, coming to an abrupt end after about half a mile at Del Mar Boulevard. There’s a matching stub 4 1/2 miles away, where the rest of Interstate 710 picks up at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra and runs 23 miles to the port of Long Beach. Closing that gap has been the subject of furious debate since the 1960s, an on-again, off-again contest between homeowners and transportation planners that is suddenly very much on again.

On Thursday, the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is to consider whether to approve a study that would examine different project alternatives and their environmental impacts. Los Angeles County voters set the process in motion in 2008 when they approved Measure R, which raised local sales taxes to pay for a variety of transportation projects — including $780 million for a tunnel that would close the 710 gap. Building the tunnel would actually cost quite a bit more than that, but the local sales tax money provides an impetus to seek additional funds elsewhere.

The Long Beach Freeway was never completed on its original above-ground route because it was blocked by South Pasadena residents whose homes stood in its path. They had good reason to object. A surface route wouldn’t just have destroyed hundreds of homes, many of them historic; it would have split neighborhoods and harmed the quality of life of thousands. Unable to win approval to go through South Pasadena, planners are instead focused on boring under it.

A 2006 study showed it was feasible from a geological standpoint to close the 710 gap via a tunnel. If the MTA board opts to proceed, the agency would study a wide range of alternatives including tunnels, improvement of surface streets or the originally planned surface freeway. The latter option is unfeasible both politically and legally. In 1999, a federal judge issued an injunction on freeway construction because planners hadn’t adequately studied alternatives or environmental impacts, and in 2003, the Federal Highway Administration withdrew an earlier agreement to fund the project.

Even the tunnel idea is controversial. Public opinion seems evenly split, with residents of South Pasadena and many communities along the 210 Freeway generally against it while neighborhoods that bear the brunt of the traffic problems caused by the existing gap tend to favor it. The San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments wants to see the project move forward, but powerful local politicians such as Ara Najarian, mayor of Glendale and chairman of the MTA board, oppose it.

The Times has long supported closing the 710 gap. Truckers and commuters have waited many, many years for it to happen, and all things being equal, we’d like to find a solution that turns the 710 from a freeway to nowhere into part of a functional traffic network. Before we sign on to a tunnel under South Pasadena, however, we’d like to see the results of the proposed study. Obviously, if there’s some insurmountable problem with the tunnel plan, or a less disruptive alternative — or if it becomes clear that the damage that would be done to the neighborhood far outweighs the benefits to freeway travelers — we would have a hard time supporting the project.

Most of the objections we’ve heard so far are about traffic; residents fear that if the 710 is completed, it will create congestion on the 210, especially as a result of increased truck traffic from the port of Long Beach. But from a regional standpoint, this is not a terribly persuasive argument against the project. The notion that completing a freeway connection would increase traffic is a bit bizarre; what it would do is redistribute traffic, ending bottlenecks in some places and worsening them in others. But the overall effect should be reduced congestion and less pollution from idling vehicles. We understand the concerns on the part of local residents, but we are obliged to look at the effect on the broader community as well.

There are other, more serious concerns still to be addressed, such as how and where the exhaust from the underground tunnel would be vented to the surface and whether that would be harmful to the health of nearby residents. There’s the question of whether the tunnel can be constructed and operated without causing vibrations so severe that they wreck the quality of life in the area. And then there’s the very important issue of cost. The 2006 tunneling study estimated it at $2.3 billion to $3.6 billion, but that was just an educated guess. Is the public benefit from building the tunnel really worth the expense? And where would the money come from?

The first question will be easier to answer when the costs and benefits have been more closely studied. Transit planners are looking to the private sector to help answer the second. The tunnel probably would end up being a toll road, and a private operator might be willing to put up money to build the tunnel in exchange for future toll revenue. Alternatively, the tunnel might be financed using bond revenue on top of the $780 million in Measure R funds, with tolls used to pay off the bonds. Millions of taxpayer dollars already spent to pursue the project could also be recovered, but only if lawmakers act.

The state owns more than 500 houses along the original planned route of the 710, many of them seized under eminent domain. If a surface route is officially scotched, they will no longer be needed, but under current law the proceeds from selling them would go to the state’s highway fund. Because those houses were bought in order to close the 710 gap, money generated from selling them should go toward the tunnel project — or if building the tunnel proves politically impossible, it should go to another transportation project in the same area. Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) has introduced a bill that would so designate the funds, and the Legislature should approve it.

The 710 gap isn’t the only hole in L.A.'s freeway network, but it’s perhaps the most troublesome. Measure R presents an opportunity to fill it, if we can find a way to do so fairly, safely and efficiently.