Pressure is mounting on the California Department of Transportation to sell the 460 properties it owns on the Long Beach (710) Freeway corridor, but officials say it could be years before any decision is made.
For decades, Caltrans has owned hundreds of homes in Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno. The agency acquired the homes in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to accommodate plans to extend the 710 Freeway from Alhambra to the Foothill (210) Freeway in Pasadena. The project has stalled amid lawsuits, funding problems and political controversy, and now it appears regional transportation officials favor digging a 4.5-mile tunnel to connect the 210 and the 710.
As a result, calls for Caltrans to sell the homes are growing louder. Earlier this month, the city of South Pasadena demanded the sale of the homes in a letter to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which is updating its regional transportation plan.
“The surface route will likely never be built,” the letter signed by all members of the City Council said. “The hundreds of state-owned properties acquired for the surface route [should] be released to private ownership.”
Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard agreed.
“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.”
The surface route may be on life support, but it is not technically dead. Though Metro board members have said they do not want to build a freeway, engineers are required to study a surface freeway as part of an exhaustive environmental impact report on what to do to ease traffic in the so-called 710 gap.
Options 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 all of the above.
The surface freeway may be formally eliminated as portions of the report are completed, but that process could take until 2014.
Kelly Markham, a Caltrans spokeswoman, said the agency wouldn’t be free to sell the homes even if the surface route is eliminated. She said the Federal Highway Administration would still need to accept the proposed route for a tunnel or whatever project gets the OK, and then the state would have to determine which properties are considered “excess” before selling.
Only then would the state sell the properties. Even if a tunnel is built, some properties might be needed to serve as ventilation, she said.
“The EIR [environmental impact report] is really just a preliminary step,” Markham said. “A lot of other things need to fall into place afterwards, and it’s been in the works for decades, so it’s hard to tell.”
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 a sale would be good for the state, which would get substantial revenue, but also for homeowners who 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. 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 past five years had the homes been privately owned — is 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.