Tunnel opponents buoyed by L.A. rejection

Local residents battling the proposed extension of the Long Beach (710) Freeway are watching hopefully as pressure rises on transportation officials to jettison plans for a 4.5-mile tunnel connecting the 710 to the Foothill (210) Freeway.

But the decision is more than a year away, and activists are girding for everything from a lobbying battle to a lawsuit.

On Tuesday the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to oppose a tunnel, joining South Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge and Glendale in taking a stance against the project. The council also rejected routes — including a highway along Avenue 64 — that previously had gotten the thumbs down from the Pasadena City Council.

While L.A. city leaders rejected the tunnel, the MTA has kept it as one of the five remaining alternatives under review in an ongoing environmental study. Other options include light rail and street upgrade projects in the region.

L.A. City Council Councilman Jose Huizar said he wanted transportation planners to understand they will have to come forward with more details about the tunnel.

“We decided to add [the tunnel to the resolution] to put a burden of proof on Caltrans and Metro to show us that it makes sense,” Huizar said. “We as a city, and any other public agency, should not take for granted the communities that would be impacted the most, as Metro and Caltrans has.”

Longtime opponents of the 710-210 connector were pleased to see the Los Angeles City Council weigh in.

Jan SooHoo, a La Cañada Flintridge resident and member of the No 710 Action Committee, said she hopes MTA will abandon the option of extending the 710. She and other opponents say the tunnel would generate truck traffic, pollution and noise throughout the region.

She noted that Huizar and Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian, an outspoken critic of the tunnel, are on the 13-member MTA board that eventually will vote on the 710 project.

“I'm hoping Huizar will be able to convince more of his colleagues on the Metro board to leave the dark side and come over and see the light,” she said.

But SooHoo tempered her expectations.

“Huizar and Najarian have in the past been the two strongest opponents on the Metro board, and yet the project has marched forward,” she noted.

The L.A. City Council vote, she said, “can't hurt. How much it will help, we'll have to wait and see.”

South Pasadena city officials are gearing up to go court once the MTA's environmental report is released, which is expected to happen in 2014.

Councilman Richard Schneider said he believes MTA violated the National Environment Policy Act by dividing the environmental study of the 710 extension into two pieces — one focusing on the portion of the highway between Long Beach and the 60 Freeway, and the other on the east end of the 710.

“We know that [violates NEPA procedures] and they should know that,” Schneider said.

MTA officials say they are following appropriate procedures in the lengthy environmental review process.

Helen Ortiz-Gilstrap, spokeswoman for MTA, added that despite the perceptions of people in the region that the agency is leaning toward the tunnel, MTA doesn't have a preference for any of the remaining alternatives.

“We're also studying some of them as hybrid options to try and come up with a way to resolve traffic issues in that area,” Ortiz-Gilstrap said. “We're in the first year of a three year study… it's not a done deal.”

Supporters of the extension say MTA should be allowed to complete the study before there are further fireworks.

Nat Read of the pro-tunnel 710 Freeway Coalition, which includes cities such as Alhambra and San Marino as well as unions and businesses, said the tunnel remains the best way to ease congestion in the area. He said the L.A. City Council vote was mostly a reaction to proposals such as the now-abandoned highway along Avenue 64.

“This was a decision at the L.A. City Council amidst the heat of a lot of the nutty alternatives that were part of [the environmental study],” he said.

“By the time we come to the next decision-making junction, this motion will be behind us and there will be a focus on what the environmental study finds,” Read said.

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