Video and podcast from Zocalo Public Square's forum last night on the 710 freeway

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.

Here’s an article on Zocalo Public Square’s website. And here’s the SR-710 Study home page.


5 replies

  1. Hi Steve,
    Point taken about his specific support of the 710 Extension. The words “embarrassingly supportive’ of the 710 extension might be too strong in regards to him. I had hoped he (and others on the panel) would have been more supportive of alternatives to building more freeways.

  2. It sure would have been nice to have someone who wasn’t embarrassing supportive of Metro on the panel. There was quite a vocal group that didn’t support the 710 extension at the meeting, but questions were immediately cut off when it was clear opposing viewpoints were going to be expressed in the Q & A period.

    Another point, Toebben and Ikhrata were enthusiastic about ‘pay to use’ concepts such as the HOV lanes. They expressed significant support that they would be implemented on all freeways, including the 710 tunnel.

    It is sort of a forgotten point that we, the payers of taxes, already paid for the existing freeways and are expected to pay for new freeways. Charging for HOV lanes is like double dipping.

    The social costs of HOV are very high. They disadvantage the lowest income users of freeways by forcing them to use slower lanes (and expend potential working time in traffic) while allowing high income users to whiz by. With a community the size of Los Angeles, finding another rider going to the same place at the same time that another is going there is almost impossible. I’m no social equality maven, but that sure seems to widen the gap between the income classes.

    I’ll bet you find an HOV transponder on Toebben and Ikhrata’s dashboard.

    • Hi Jo;

      I attended the forum and I don’t think that it’s accurate to say that Brian Taylor of UCLA was “embarrassing supportive” of the project. He spoke quite a bit about the nature of traffic congestion and his views on ways it could be eased.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  3. Apparently spending billions for subways and rail tunnels along the I-405 are not too expensive? $100 billion for “high speed” rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles that is already adequately served by the 101, 5, and 99 Freeways? I notice that the pro-rail cheerleaders think nothing of cost when it comes to steel wheels. I think that the pro-freeway side has compromised already by making this a tunnel project and by paying this exclusively through tolls. I am still waiting for transit to pay its own way on one single project.

  4. A weakness of the panel was having someone from out of the area (Linda Adams) represent the environmental community. The proponents seem to be placing great faith that the EIR will endorse their view the tunnel is the best option to improve air quality.

    I have to question how viable tolling is to fund a project of this magnitude. Would it involve some sort of public-private partnership with the revenue stream paying back the builder? Or do the proponents think bonds could be issued that the tolls pay off? I am not clear on that point.

    Some folks didn’t understand Taylor was speaking of congestion pricing as a means of controlling demand not a funding mechanism. A gentleman seated near me complained “we already paid for the freeway”.

    Since Toebben and Ikhrata were clearly unapologetic cheerleaders for the project it is hard to gauge how accurate their claims are for the benefits of the gap closure and the level of support for it among residents in the adjacent corridor. One audience member prefaced his question by stating the numerous mentions of the opposition in South Pasadena gave the impression that is the only place from which opposition springs when in fact several of the other cities in the area have also taken official positions to oppose the tunnel. An El Sereno resident complained they are often overlooked when the project and its impact is discussed.

    Despite the claims made that “something” has to be done I keep coming back to my simple feeling the tunnel is so ghastly expensive the proponents hopes of finding the funds to build it are rather far-fetched and at this point continued pursuit of the project is just a waste of time. With the recession easing, construction costs are starting to escalate again and we may be approaching the point where sticker shock means a fork is finally put in this debate and the project is official declared dead.