Guest Column: The case against building the 710 Freeway tunnel

At the May 11 meeting of the California Transportation Commission in Los Angeles, the Commissioners heard a Caltrans update on the so-called “SR-710 Gap Closure Project.” This proposed project would extend the 710 (Long Beach) Freeway from its northern terminus in Alhambra to intersect with 210 Freeway in Pasadena by way of a 5-mile tunnel. If built, this freeway extension would bring much greater vehicular traffic to La Cañada Flintridge and would create significant health risks stemming from increased air pollution. I made comments to the Commissioners regarding the update and I wanted to share them with La Cañada Flintridge readers.

First, let me say that we are fully aware of the congestion problem that exists at the northern terminus of the 710 Freeway in the Alhambra area. As stakeholders in the region, we want to help find good ways to solve that problem. And, more broadly, let me say that we support good ways to improve mobility in our region and in Los Angeles County.

But we reject and oppose the knee-jerk 50-year-old “let's-build-another-freeway” solution as the only way to proceed.

It's the 21st century and we should be able to use 21st-century knowledge, sensitivities and technology to create a modern, efficient and cost-effective solution that all stakeholders can embrace.

A 1946 planning map shows a number of proposed freeways in the Los Angeles area, and a freeway running between Long Beach and Pasadena is one of them. While many of these proposed freeways were built, some of them were not built and never will be built, such as the Beverly Hills Freeway. A line drawn on a map 65 years ago is neither an authorization nor an obligation to build a freeway today. We reject the notion that a northward extension of the 710 freeway constitutes a gap closure.

The idea of a 5-mile tunnel to connect the 710 with the 210 in Pasadena arose after the Federal Highway Administration in 2003 withdrew its support of a surface extension through South Pasadena. Since then, a series of Metro/Caltrans studies and outreach meetings have taken place which have all seemed designed to support a predetermined bias for the tunnel option.

The most recent evidence of this bias was the failure to include La Cañada Flintridge, Altadena, Glendale, La Crescenta and Montrose in the study area for the Draft Environmental Impact Report scoping effort despite the likelihood that these communities would be those most severely impacted by a 710/210 connection. This omission, which surely cannot be explained as an oversight, is just one example of many that betray a deeply flawed evaluation process.

The last guesstimate of cost for the tunnel was $5.6 billion.

There evidently is no quantified cost/benefit analysis.

What quantifiable financial benefit would the tunnel bring, and would it justify the expenditure of $5.6 billion? At what point does the cost outweigh the benefits?

It seems elementary that these determinations should be made before embarking on a full-fledged and wide-ranging environmental impact report process that is estimated to cost $60 to $90 million. Elected officials representing the region have questioned this repeatedly, so far to no avail.

We sometimes hear that these questions don't really matter because, “we expect the project to be constructed under a public-private partnership.” The weakness of this statement is readily betrayed — there really is no such thing as a free lunch, and no responsible private entity would embark on any project without a clear understanding of the cost and a reliable cost/benefit analysis, and certainly not on a project of this magnitude.

Original studies by Metro and the Southern California Association of Governments indicate that a tunnel, if built, would open at Service Level “F” at peak hours — in other words, at gridlock. The tunnel would be a multi-billion-dollar study in instant obsolescence.

If completed, the 710/210 connection has been projected to bring an incremental 30,000 vehicles through La Cañada Flintridge on the 210 every day. Approximately 8,500 of these would be heavy trucks. Study after study, notably from USC's Keck School of Medicine, show the dangerous effects of living, working or going to school within 500 feet of a heavily traveled freeway. In particular, these studies show permanent lung impairment in children.

There are 10 schools in La Cañada Flintridge within 500 feet of 210 Freeway — schools that predate the construction of the freeway.

Experts have called the 710 the dirtiest freeway in America.

Given all this, is it really any wonder why our city opposes the northward extension of the 710? Is it really worth risking the health of hundreds and, over time, thousands of schoolchildren just to move an extra 30,000 vehicles per day on the 210 Freeway? The proposed 710/210 connection presents a clear and present threat to the health of our residents. Of course we oppose it. Wouldn't you? This is something that greatly transcends simple NIMBYism.

There are numerous potentially viable and more cost-effective alternatives to a freeway that must be seriously considered, individually and in combination. These include light rail expansion, dedicated bus lanes, intermodal transportation, low-build highway, local-street upgrades, improved freeway interchanges, improved traffic management systems such as better traffic light synchronization and possibly congestion pricing.

But we have seen scant if any evidence of serious consideration from Metro or Caltrans of any alternative other than the tunnel.

We owe it to taxpayers and residents to study all viable options in a project-neutral manner, to understand their costs and to conduct proper cost/benefit analyses.

Achieving regional and political consensus to solve this mobility problem has failed for more than 50 years. Achieving regional and political consensus will be possible only if all options are considered seriously, fairly and objectively. Otherwise the stalemate will only continue.

I urge the Commissioners to use their office and authority to help us all find the optimal solution to the problem, one that all stakeholders can embrace, one that will manifest a true regional consensus.

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DONALD R. VOSS is a member of the La Cañada Flintridge City Council. He can be reached via email at

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