As many readers are surely aware, the ongoing studies to improve traffic in the area around the gap in the 710 freeway just finished their latest round of community meetings. Not surprisingly, the meetings got a lot of fur flying in some communities — the reason I wanted to post today to explain exactly what is being studied, why it’s being studied and what might come of it.
First, I want to be very clear about something and I’m going to put it in large, bold letters to emphasize my point: DESPITE WHAT YOU MAY HAVE HEARD FROM A FRIEND, NEIGHBOR, POLITICIAN, PERSON IN LINE AT THE COFFEE SHOP, ETC., NO DECISIONS HAVE BEEN MADE BY METRO OR ANY OTHER GOVERNMENT AGENCY TO BUILD ANYTHING. INCLUDING A TUNNEL.
As someone who has watched this issue percolate for many moons, I am going to do my best to explain what is being discussed and studied by Metro:
WHY IS METRO STUDYING THE 710 GAP ISSUE?
In 2008, nearly 68 percent of Los Angeles County voters approved the Measure R half-cent sales tax increase to help fund 12 transit projects and a long list of highway projects. Among those was a project to address traffic issues raised by the four-mile gap in the 710 freeway between Valley Boulevard in Alhambra and California Avenue in Pasadena. The project is set to receive $780 million in Measure R funding.
Measure R did not obligate Metro to build any particular 710 project, although its passage did obligate Metro to study the issue and determine if a project was warranted — just like every other project listed in the Measure R expenditure plan. To put it another way, Measure R obligated Metro to come up with possible project alternatives and then decide if any of the alternatives were worth pursuing — which is the lovely and fascinating process we have before you now.
WHO WILL MAKE THE FINAL DECISION ON A 710 PROJECT?
At the end of the day it will be up to Metro’s 13-member Board of Directors who oversee the agency; Board Members either elected officials or their appointees. There’s a good reason for this: elected officials are accountable by the public at the ballot box.
BUT HASN’T IT BEEN DECIDED WE CAN ALL LIVE PEACEFULLY WITH THE STATUS QUO WHEN IT COMES TO THE 710 GAP?
No. A formal decision has never been made by the county, state or federal government or the courts that the 710 gap is a settled issue and that nothing should be done to help improve traffic in the area. The 710 freeway reached Valley Boulevard in 1965 and there were plans to continue to Pasadena but it never happened.
An attempt to close the gap with a surface-level freeway died in the 1990s due mostly to community opposition. To this day, there remains communities who would like to see the 710 gap issue addressed just as there are communities — or, at the least, community members — who would probably like to see the issue forever vanish into the ether.
As a Pasadena resident, I do think it’s fair to say that the region has in some sense adapted to the 710 gap, just as many Westsiders have adapted to their horrible traffic congestion. I also think it’s hard to ignore the fact that the gap still causes a number of traffic issues, among them increased congestion on surface and residential streets as traffic detours around the gap.
The most obvious impact is on surface streets between Alhambra and Pasadena — in particular Valley Boulevard, Fremont Avenue and Pasadena Avenue. But many others believe that the impact is more pronounced with a ripple effect outward and increased traffic on other north-south roads in the area — such as the 5 and 605 freeways as well as east-west corridors used to get around the area, such as the 10, 210 and 134 freeways and Huntington Drive.
WHY IS METRO STUDYING ALTERNATIVES THAT ARE CERTAIN TO MAKE SOME COMMUNITIES HOPPING MAD?
The answer is actually pretty simple: both state and federal environmental law requires Metro to consider a wide variety of options instead of simply assuming one or two of them is the best way to go. Every Metro project must clear this hurdle. For example, in the environmental studies for the Westside Subway Extension, Metro planners had to look at a very wide variety of transit types and routes — not to mention their respective impacts — in order to justify why extending the Purple Line subway to Westwood would serve the community best.
With the 710, it’s obvious that no project alternative is going to please everybody. But Metro has to consider a variety of alternatives in order to find one that’s best, whether it be traffic signal improvements, new bus rapid transit lines, a freeway tunnel or other road widenings to improve traffic flow. In my view, it’s just further proof that democracy can cause one big mess — and that big mess, in my humble view, is still better than the alternative.
“We stepped back — way back — in 2010 when the Metro Board of Directors said we want to look at this all over again,” said Frank Quon, Executive Officer, Metro’s Highway Program. “We’re trying to connect with all the communities and get their input. We have embraced the public outreach process and we need to hear all the voices.”
Quon, in a recent talk with me, pointed out that Metro may end up choosing one or more of the alternatives, a sort of hybrid approach. He also said that, as always, reducing impacts or being able to manage them will be a very important consideration — and a big reason that Metro is seeking so much community input.
Impacts, in fact, are always a huge consideration. A project has to both perform well and have impacts that are acceptable and manageable.
SO WHAT’S UP WITH SOME OF THESE ALTERNATIVES THAT METRO IS FLOATING?
When Metro launched the latest round of studies on the 710 gap in 2010, the agency and its Board of Directors decided the best approach was to start fresh and put everything on the table. After an initial scoping process — with a lot of community input — more than 40 ideas sat on the proverbial table.
Metro staff and consultants have narrowed that list to 12 alternatives based on many criteria including this significant one: the alternatives that have survived to date are ones that Metro believes would either have a positive impact on reducing travel times in the area, reduce freeway congestion, improve road and transit connections and/or increase transit usage. Here they are (here’s the direct link to the pdf):
Keep in mind that a tunnel would undoubtedly cost several billion dollars and the project, at this point, has $780 million in Measure R funding. Metro has studied whether public-private partnerships (known as PPPs) can be used to build projects that are not completely funded (here’s the web page on metro.net explaining them). Generally speaking, a PPP arrangement involves having a private firm build a project in exchange for some type of future revenue — such as money collected from a toll road, for example.
So there is a potential financing model out there, but it’s important again to note that no decision to build a freeway tunnel for the 710 has been made. It remains unknown whether there are even private firms out there willing to take on that kind of risk.
WHERE DOES THE PROCESS GO FROM HERE?
Metro staff will finish the ongoing study — called an alternative analysis — this fall. That report will include recommendations from Metro staff about which project alternatives should be studied in a much longer, much more thorough draft environmental impact statement/report. The final decision about what gets studied further will ultimately be up to the Metro Board.
In the more immediate future — by the end of August — a technical advisory committee will start looking at the performance of the alternatives still on the table and narrowing that list.