Above is both video and a podcast from Zocalo Public Square’s forum at MOCA on Wednesday evening that was titled “What does Southern California need from the 710 freeway?”
The forum — which was sponsored by Metro — focused on the 4.5-mile gap in the 710 freeway between Alhambra and Pasadena and the ongoing study by Caltrans and Metro that seeks to improve traffic congestion in the area.
The project’s draft environmental document is scheduled for release next February and is considering five alternatives: a freeway tunnel to close the gap, a light rail line between East Los Angeles and Pasadena, bus rapid transit between East L.A. and Pasadena, traffic signal and intersection improvements in the 710 area and the legally-required no-build option. The project is scheduled to receive $780 million in Measure R funding, although additional money would be needed to build some of the more expensive alternatives — if, in fact, the Metro Board of Directors ultimately decides to build anything.
NBC-4′s n moderated the panel that included Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency Linda S. Adams, Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) executive director Hasan Ikhrata and UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies director Brian Taylor. I thought Nolan framed the 710 issue well, calling it a “Gordian knot” and that “I’ve never seen a transportation issue as convolutedly complicated as this one.”
As the panelists pointed out several times, the 710 discussion goes back to the 1950s and original state plans to complete the 710 between Long Beach and Pasadena. Less than half of the state’s original freeway plans for our region was built – the reason, for example, that the 2 freeway ends at Glendale Boulevard and the Marina Freeway only exists west of the 405. As Brian Taylor noted, however, the 710 remains somewhat unique among the unfinished freeways because while there are uncompleted segments, there are very few areas where there is such a pronounced gap.
What to be done about it? Both Toebben and Ikhrata said that closing the gap made the most sense and would take traffic off surface streets in the western San Gabriel Valley, help improve air quality (the freeway would keep traffic moving instead of sitting and idling) and would likely also ease congestion on other freeways that motorists use to skirt the 710 gap, most notably the 110 and 5 freeways. “It’s more expensive to do nothing,” Ikhrata said, adding that billions of dollars were lost in travel delays.
When Toebben was asked if motorists would be willing to pay a toll to use the tunnel, his answer was a simple “yes.” He later noted that he lives near Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena and sees motorists each day use it as a way to close the 710 gap by using Orange Grove, the 110 freeway and the 5 freeway to get back to the 710. “Am I willing to pay three, four bucks — I don’t know what the cost will be — to avoid those other routes and get off those freeways so that others who need to travel those freeways, can? Yes, I’m willing to do that. I’d venture to say that every single person who lives anywhere close to this freeway, and I’m including myself, will see less traffic on their streets if a tunnel was built than they see right now.”
UCLA’s Taylor took the most nuanced and expansive view, first explaining the basic mechanics of freeway traffic congestion when commuters and those running errands compete for too little physical space on roadways (go to the 29 minute mark of the video). The result: throughput of the roads drops dramatically and a traffic jam ensues. He also pointed out that Measure R half-cent sales tax increase spreads the cost of mobility to everyone, whether they are using the mobility or not.
With that in mind, Taylor said that solving traffic congestion on a regional level could be done today if the area so choose with congestion pricing — i.e. tolling roadways so that motorists paid the true cost of driving (air pollution, freeway expansion, travel delays). That would drop demand for road space down to reasonable levels and allow traffic to free-flow instead of idle along. “Let’s argue about whether to close the gap or not, because we want to make sure that we never want to price people’s travel…if we did we would have a free flowing system,” Taylor said. “[But] that’s politically unacceptable.”
There was a brief Q&A session after the main discussion and it was pretty clear that some in the audience felt their view was missing: that closing the gap with a freeway tunnel would ultimately lead to more traffic and air pollution. And some of the questions revealed (yet again) the depth of the disagreements over this issue: when one audience member asked why building a rail line for freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach was not being considered, SCAG’s Ikhrata replied that building a freight rail line to Pasadena made little sense as most freight from the ports moves east, not north.