Local opponents of a proposed 710 Freeway tunnel scored a victory Thursday when Metro's board of directors voted unanimously to direct hundreds of millions of Measure R dollars away from a tunnel option and toward systematic traffic improvements throughout the San Gabriel Valley.
"This is a huge day for La Cañada and for the region," state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) said in an interview after the vote. "The three generations of activists who worked first to kill the freeway and now to kill the tunnel, and those who drafted us into this fight, need to be commended."
La Cañada officials and city staff members joined resident activists opposed to the tunnel at the meeting, where La Cañada Mayor Mike Davitt addressed board members in a public comment about the motion to forego the tunnel as a feasible, fundable option.
"The tunnel is not practical, is unfundable and, most importantly, does not address regional transportation needs," Davitt said, adding poor air quality and negative health impacts as chief concerns. "We do believe that the motion provides an effective path for the affected cities in the region to work together in connection with Metro's goals to allow for improvements which will benefit everyone."
After hearing two hours of public comments, board members voted 12-0 in favor of an amendment supporting systematic traffic signal upgrades, enhanced bus services and a number of local street improvements as part of a transportation system management/transportation demand management (TSM/TDM) plan.
The decision is expected to shift more than $700 million in funding from the county's 30-year Measure R sales tax, originally intended for the tunnel, to the $105-million TSM/TDM option and other locally driven improvement initiatives.
The motion was put forth by Metro board member and L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Board Chair John Fasana, mayor pro tem of Duarte and a longtime tunnel advocate. Fasana said he could no longer continue to prolong finding a solution to increasingly vexing traffic issues along the 710 corridor.
"It gets improvements out there now," he said of the amendment. "I've thought the tunnel is the best approach. I've also come to the realization it is not fundable. If it happened, it would be many, many years away."
Portantino, a former La Cañada City Council member who first took his worries about the 710 to his council colleagues in 1999, said Fasana's shift in thinking is emblematic of a changing climate surrounding the feasibility, financial and otherwise, of a multibillion-dollar tunnel project.
The senator attributed the shifting tide of public opinion, in part, to repeated missteps by Metro, as plans for a tunnel moved ever forward despite a lack of convincing and timely documentation proving it could be paid for.
"The more stumbling they did, the more groundswell of support (against a tunnel) began to build," Portantino said.
Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian, a Metro boardmember who's long opposed a 710 tunnel, called Thursday's decision a historic moment and praised Fasana and Barger's motion as the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do.
"The important thing is there's money being offered to the communities, significant money, to do your own projects and work together — from El Sereno and East L.A. all the way up to La Cañada, you're all in this," Najarian said. "This is truly a transportation step forward."
Former La Cañada City Councilman Don Voss, a longtime critic of the tunnel, said he was thrilled to hear the tunnel option was, for now, off the table.
"This is really a great day for La Cañada, a great day for the San Gabriel Valley and a great day for Los Angeles County," Voss said in a phone interview from Seattle. "This is an opportunity at last for citizens to reach out to Alhambra and Monterey Park and say now that we're done with this discussion, let's find a way to address transportation issues in the San Gabriel Valley that we can all embrace."
Stalwart supporters of the tunnel, however, disagreed with the Metro board's ruling.
"This has been a long battle but we're not tired," Alhambra Mayor Dave Mejia said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. "Our No. 1 priority is to provide relief to our communities and we will keep fighting to make sure our cities get the support and resources we need to reduce congestion on our streets."
Meanwhile, local activist members of the "No 710 Action Committee," like La Cañada resident Jan SooHoo, recognize their fight hasn't ended, either. Now the priority is making sure plans for a tunnel are stricken from Metro's long-range plans and the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) developed by the Southern California Assn. of Governments to guide transportation projects decades into the future.
"I'm relieved, but there's still a lot of work to be done," SooHoo said after the board meeting. "Now we need to get the tunnel out of the RTP."