Pressure is mounting on the California Department of Transportation to sell 460 homes it acquired decades ago in Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno to make way for an extension of the 710 Freeway that has been stalled ever since.
But officials say it could be years before any decision is made on the properties.
Caltrans bought the homes in the 1950s, '60s and '70s to accommodate plans to extend the northern end of the Long Beach Freeway from Alhambra, where it ends now, to the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena. But now it appears regional transportation officials favor digging a 4.5-mile tunnel to connect the 710 and the 210.
As a result, calls for Caltrans to unload the homes are growing louder. In a letter this month to the Southern California Assn. of Governments — which is updating its regional transportation plan — the entire South Pasadena City Council demanded the sale of the properties, the Pasadena Sun reported.
"The surface route will likely never be built," the letter says. "The hundreds of state-owned properties acquired for the surface route [should] be released to private ownership."
Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard agrees.
"The surface route is dead, and the only possible pursuit of that dream for some people is a tunnel," Bogaard said. "It seems to me there's no reason to fail to sell the properties."
Although Metro board members have said they do not want to build a surface freeway, engineers are required to study the idea as part of an exhaustive environmental impact report on what to do to ease traffic in the so-called 710 gap.
Alternatives include the tunnel, improvements to surface streets, an increased emphasis on mass transit, a rail line to replace trucks that deliver freight from the Port of Los Angeles or some combination of those possibilities.
A surface freeway may be formally eliminated as portions of the report are completed, but that could take until 2014.
Even then, Caltrans wouldn't be free to sell the homes until the Federal Highway Administration accepted the proposed route for a tunnel or whatever project was approved and the state determined which properties were "excess" and therefore available to be sold, said Kelly Markham, a Caltrans spokeswoman.
Under a state law passed in 1979, current tenants and past owners would be the first in line to buy should Caltrans put the homes on the market.
Local officials say the state would receive substantial revenue and homeowners would take an increased interest in their residences.
"What makes sense is to get the properties into the hands of people who will truly care for them, and for the state to liquidate those properties and use the money," Bogaard said.
Even when Caltrans makes improvements to the homes, it does so in a way that draws controversy.
Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) launched a state investigation last year into maintenance costs after seeing bills for roofing that averaged $71,000 each, well above private-sector costs. The findings from that probe — which will look at maintenance costs, evaluate alternatives to state ownership and determine the amount of property taxes that could have been collected in the last five years had the homes been privately owned — are expected to be released in June.
"Caltrans has not been a good landlord either in terms of caring for the properties and repairing them, or managing them and keeping them filled," Bogaard said.