During most workdays, trucks hauling cargo containers dominate the two right lanes in each direction of the 710 Freeway, a vital trade corridor for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest combined harbor in the United States.
The worst congestion occurs at rush hour when big rigs line up nose to tail, forming a wall of vehicles that extends for miles in each direction. Traffic in all lanes slows to a crawl, and motorists back up at the short offramps built in the 1950s.
"It really gets crowded; there's more and more traffic every year," said Julio Garcia, a truck driver who works 12 to 14 hours a day picking up and delivering shipping containers. "They need to do something for the truckers. More lanes would be good."
Garcia might get his wish for a highway that's been rendered inadequate by the nation's appetite for imported goods.
After more than 15 years of discussion and planning, transportation officials are considering two multibillion-dollar options to reconstruct an 18-mile stretch of the 710 between the harbor and rail yards near Interstate 5. Both are designed to separate cars and trucks as much as possible.
One alternative under study by Caltrans and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is an $8-billion freight corridor that includes four elevated truck-only lanes that would parallel the 710 between the highway and the Los Angeles River.
The other option, which is far cheaper at an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion, would add one lane in each direction and a bypass that would take trucks around the 405 Freeway interchange. The 710 now has anywhere from three to five lanes in each direction.
The proposals include extensive improvements to about a dozen interchanges and redesigns of connector and ramp areas to eliminate weaving caused by merging trucks and cars. Bikeways and walkways for pedestrians also are under consideration.
"This is a high-priority project as far as we are concerned," said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency. "There is no way we can accommodate the traffic without adding capacity. This region handles more than 40% of all port traffic in the United States."
The two current proposals were essentially split off from a broader 710 South project approved in 2005 by MTA directors. That $4.5-billion proposal called not only for two elevated truck lanes but also for interchange improvements and at least two regular lanes in each direction.
Port officials, business leaders and community groups agreed that the overhaul was long overdue for a route that lacked many of the safety and design features of more modern highways.
At the time, projections indicated that as the ports expanded, average daily truck trips would more than double from about 40,000 to 90,000 by 2020.
The most current forecasts from the association of governments indicate that average daily truck trips will increase from about 43,000 in 2008 to about 80,000 in 2035, about 10,000 less than earlier estimates.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, the 710 and other highways used for commerce in the Los Angeles area have ranked among the worst in the nation for delay. And at 15 to 20 truck crashes per mile per year, the freeway is among the worst in Los Angeles County for big-rig accidents, figures show.
A decade ago, there was talk of starting construction this year, but a lack of state assistance and the worst economic recession since World War II delayed the project. Officials say money remains in short supply, but planning and environmental reviews have continued with an infusion of cash from Measure R, the county's half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax that helps pay for transportation.
It would take about two years for the planning and environmental work to be completed. And once an option is selected and money is found, a construction contract could be awarded by 2018 or 2019.
"This is a big project," said Gregg Magaziner, the executive officer of the MTA's highway programs. "It's going to be a challenge and will have to have funding from a variety of sources."
Like many major transportation projects, the 710 South has been controversial. Questioning the options is the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice, comprising seven community and environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The coalition fears the project will increase truck emissions in nearby neighborhoods that are already heavily polluted by port traffic. Largely because of the high volume of emissions, the 710 corridor has been called the "diesel death zone."
The groups have called for an elevated truck way that does not expand the highway's footprint or intrude into nearby residential and commercial areas. They also want zero-emission trucks, more public transit in the area and bikeways, pedestrian access and green space along the river.
Ramya Sivasubramanian, a defense council attorney, said Caltrans and the MTA have balked at requests to study that option. She and Mark Lopez, director of Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said there might be potential for a lawsuit, but that is not what the coalition wants to do.
"We need Caltrans to change from seeing communities as enemies to seeing communities as partners," he said.
MTA and SCAG officials say they are considering requirements for low-emission trucks, such as hybrids or those that use cleaner fuels, and incentives for operators to buy zero-emission vehicles. The region's harbor complex already has a clean-truck program, but it does not require zero emissions.
Amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians are also being studied, they say, but they are generally close to the freeway.
The coalition "has every right to ask for these things, but we cannot give them everything they are asking for," Ikhrata said. "We will do the project as clean as we can and limit impacts on communities. You have to check reality sometimes."