710 tunnel could be health hazard

Speaking to a crowd already leery of a proposed tunnel connecting the Long Beach (710) Freeway to Pasadena, a leading smog scientist and asthma researcher warned Tuesday that the roadway could be a health hazard.

"Those of us in the area of air quality have long considered the 710 freeway to be arguably the dirtiest freeway in the country," said John Seinfeld, a Caltech professor who has studied air pollutants for decades. "That really is a function of the heavy-duty truck traffic on the freeway."

USC professor of preventive medicine Rob McConnell said 21,000 cases of asthma in Los Angeles County can be attributed to children living or attending school near a major roadway, and that abnormally low lung function is five times more likely in a community with high levels of pollutants.

A 4.5-mile tunnel connecting the 710 to the Foothill (210) Freeway in Pasadena is one of five alternatives the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considering to ease traffic in the region. Others include a light rail line and street improvements. The agency's ongoing environmental study is expected to wrap up in 2014.

Panelists, including a representative from the MTA study, an earthquake expert and an advocate for the area's historic architecture, spoke before hundreds of people at the Pasadena Convention Center Tuesday night.

Stephen Klein, a geotechnical engineer who is conducting the study for the MTA, noted that air vents would be outfitted with scrubbers to capture pollutants as air leaves the proposed tunnel.

Klein had the unenviable task of speaking before a crowd dotted with people sporting "No 710" signs and shirts.

"Have you ever considered that if this tunnel got built, this project could actually improve your quality of life?" Klein said to a resounding chorus of boos. "All of the vehicles that use the tunnel, we're going to clean that air, and right now those vehicles are in the streets."

Some attendees said they had not made up their minds about the project.

Pasadena resident Dona Lee said that she was most concerned about possible air pollution, but wanted to see more data on the project.

"It seems obvious that [pollutants are] harmful," she said. "But I just wanted to know more."

The meeting was sponsored by Pasadena City Councilman Steve Madison, whose constituents rose up in arms earlier this summer when MTA briefly proposed building a highway along Avenue 64.

Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian, one of two members of the 13-member MTA board who opposes a tunnel, said there is little question that MTA will prefer the tunnel over light rail or other options and that truck traffic in the area will increase.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) allowed that opposition to the tunnel is strong in his district, but that it would affect others around the region, too.

"People say, 'Oh, it's a provincial fight up the hill.' Well, a tunnel has an opening on both ends," he said. "This will devastate Los Angeles and La Crescenta. It's a bad project. It's just a bad project."