DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — Opponents of the proposed underground tunnel extension of the Long Beach (710) Freeway were dealt a major blow Thursday when county transportation officials voted to initiate a major environmental study of project.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted Thursday to approve the more in-depth environmental studies needed to move the proposal forward.
Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian, who as chairman of the MTA Board of Directors has been a vocal opponent of the tunnel, attempted to push an amendment that would have called on officials to first study all available solutions to the traffic congestion — including a tunnel, light rail and freight corridor improvements — and compare the cost benefits, but that effort failed.
“My concern is this is going to go to the Environmental Impact Report and get the same old rubber stamp,” he said.
Some board members said they would consider studying the cost benefits of other alternatives while completing the environmental study. Najarian voted against the environmental study motion.
While an environmental document will take years to prepare, the vote was still a major landmark for the tunnel proposal, which has been dismissed for years as an unlikely and too expensive.
The decades-long controversy surrounding the proposed “gap closure” of the Foothill (210) and Long Beach (710) freeways had been relatively dormant since 2003, when federal officials withdrew their support for the defeated surface highway option.
But the debate over the alternative, an underground tunnel, was reinvigorated last year when the California Department of Transportation and MTA released a $6-million route feasibility study. The report showed tunneling was feasible within five potential route zones, which include connections to the 210 and Glendale (2) freeways.
The debate renewed an ongoing fight between the San Gabriel Valley communities, which have long pleaded for relief from traffic congestion, and several foothill communities that say the connector will add more polluting big rigs to local freeways.
Stakeholders were forced to wait nearly six hours Thursday to hear the board’s decision on the study after more than a hundred angry protesters organized by the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union interrupted to call for a public hearing on a planned bus fare hike.
Even after board moved proceedings to a backroom to broadcast the meetings outside, Najarian was eventually forced to order sheriff’s deputies to remove the protesters, two of whom were arrested for obstructing a public meeting.
Opponents of the tunnel argued that the environmental studies would be premature before studying other alternatives.
“Failing to study alternate projects will make it impossible to achieve community consensus,” La Cañada Flintridge Mayor Don Voss said.
Supporters countered that the Environmental Impact Report was long overdue and would include alternative analysis.
“What concerns me at this late date is to add another hoop to the EIR,” said Assemblyman Mike Eng, whose district includes Alhambra, El Monte, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Gabriel, San Marino and South El Monte. “To add another hoop would send the wrong signal.”
Eng was one of nearly a dozen elected officials and several dozen residents from the affected communities who spoke on both sides of the issue. Multiple residents from Glendale, La Crescenta and La Cañada joined residents from Pasadena and South Pasadena in speaking out against the tunnel.
Many residents questioned the potential health effects and earthquake dangers of a tunnel and instead called for a “21st Century solution” to the traffic problem. They also singled out the multi-billion-dollar price tag for the proposal.
“It is a waste of public funds when there are so many critical needs in this state,” said Glendale resident Elise Kalfayan.
San Gabriel Valley residents meanwhile pushed for the extension as a way to improve the traffic and pollution associated with the 710 Freeway’s dead end in Alhambra, which spits thousands of cars onto city streets.
Several proponents also sought to tie the to the passage of Measure R, the half-cent sales tax approved by the voters in Nov. 2008.
“Move forward to what the people voted for,” city of Walnut Mayor Tom King said, “the completion of the 710 Freeway.”