Ron Kaye: Activism and the 710 tunnel

Joanne Nuckols has put the people she calls "transportation bullies" in their place for decades.

She reels off the long, sordid history of South Pasadena's fight against extending the 710 Freeway through her town, lawsuit by lawsuit, injunction by injunction, community action by community action, as the grassroots movement spread to include residents all along the corridor.

On Saturday, Nuckols and dozens of other activists joined by a cadre of elected officials from Glendale, La Cañada, Pasadena and South Pasadena were to stage a rally and press conference at Blair High School in Pasadena before the start of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's community meeting intended to sell the public on the virtue of a multi-billion-dollar, four-mile tunnel from Alhambra to Pasadena.

It has been a tough sell for 60 years, but transportation officials keep trying, with the full support of those who would benefit most: the engineers, contractors, truckers, unions as well as the politicians they keep in office.

"It's so exciting to be involved, it's like a revolution," said Nuckols, who has been active on transportation issues almost since she and her husband moved to town in the late 1960s. "They treated us like we were just a little fly they could swat away. The defining moment came in '73 when we got the first injunction against the freeway."

Saturday's protest, coming on the 14th anniversary of yet another injunction that blocked freeway construction, was called because of the fire that occurred a week ago in the northbound tunnel connecting the Pasadena Freeway to the I-5 when a tanker spilled 8,500 gallons of gas and set off an inferno, causing damage that will take a long time to repair.

A similar fire occurred six years ago in Santa Clarita when two dozen trucks crashed and burned in the southbound I-5 bypass tunnel — an event that prompted Nuckols and other activists to create a banner and yard signs to show "what can go wrong in a tunnel."

Doug Failing, who was regional Caltrans director at the time of that crash but joined Metro as its highway construction expert after passage of the Measure R sales tax for transportation, is the target of much of the criticism from the No on 710 activists.

"You ask questions and you get no answers," Nuckols said. "It's like they're tone deaf. They try to feed us this pablum, but we're not eating it. They just ignore the fact that those tunnels should never be built and will never be built."

The anti-freeway movement gained momentum and much broader support last summer when Metro included a possible tunnel or surface route on Avenue 64 through much of L.A.'s Eastside and the San Rafael neighborhood in west Pasadena.

All along the route, people got organized and forced Metro to abandon the plan that affected them directly. But they didn't stop there; they kept working with other neighborhoods to pack meeting after meeting to challenge transportation officials, the community relations firm they hired and their technical experts, as well as rounding up support from the Pasadena City Council as well as La Cañada-Flintridge and Glendale officials.

The coalition now has multiple websites as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts to keep everyone informed and involved.

"It's very multilayered and complicated, but we have different guerrilla groups that go out and deal with different issues as part of the overall umbrella group." Nuckols said.

"What's so incredible is we get no response from Metro to the information and questions we raise," she added. "That's one of their big problems. They think we're going to go away, but our group is just growing."

One of the strongest supporters of the No 710 Action Committee's campaign has been former Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, who reached out to Nuckols even before he first ran for a seat on the La Cañada-Flintridge City Council.

"The fight against the 710 has turned from a local issue into a regional issue of significant importance precisely because of the mounting public activism and the horrible approach taken by proponents," said Portantino, one of the political figures who was slated to be at Saturday's protest.

"Nothing gets folks more engaged and active than a poorly acted charade and MTA's advocacy for a project that most folks feel will negatively impact the San Gabriel Valley and the city of Los Angeles," Portantino added. "As a result, neighbors from across the region are seizing the moment, the initiative and making a difference."

With a new L.A. mayor in Eric Garcetti, who is on the record as opposing the tunnel and has hired former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole, a long-time 710 opponent, as a top aide, the Metro board has the votes to kill the tunnel project once and for all and end the waste of tens of millions of dollars on something that is never going to happen.

In this rare case, where the people have gotten so well-organized, so informed, so strong, it should be clear that they are going to keep on truckin' against the 710 gap project for as long as it takes.

The "transportation bullies" and the greed merchants who want this should be shown the door and the $780 million set aside for this boondoggle should be used to expand rail and rapid bus service in the region, synchronize lights and take other steps to improve the flow of traffic and movement of people.

That's what people want, the people who pay the bills for all of this.


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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