Reporting

December 07, 2012 by Justin Ewers

How to Get Nowhere in LA: 710 Freeway Quagmire


Map showing some of the 710 freeway extensions that have been proposed over the years.

If you’ve ever tried driving north out of Los Angeles from Long Beach, then you know what lies ahead.

Try driving out of town from the coast—or, say, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which together make up the nation’s busiest cargo complex, sending trucks by the tens of thousands up the 710 freeway. For more than twenty miles, you seem to be sailing through the heart of the LA Basin. The cities roll by, Compton, South Gate, East LA. 

And then, with Pasadena on the horizon, and an easy connection out of town only a few miles away, the freeway ends.  After what can be miles of standstill traffic, one of LA’s major thoroughfares comes to a dead stop at a three-way stoplight on a surface street called Valley Boulevard. More often than not, gridlock and traffic jams await. 

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority has tried for decades to tackle this seemingly straightforward infrastructure challenge—since 1965, to be exact—proposing a variety of solutions, starting with extending the freeway through South Pasadena to connect with the 210 on the other side.  

Transportation experts have spent years exploring light-rail options and freight alternatives. They have looked at bus lines and improving local streets. They have highlighted the thousands of jobs different projects would create and touted the economic boost easing traffic congestion would provide. 

For more than four decades, none of it has worked. 

A hard infrastructure lesson

Even after Los Angeles County voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in 2008 to raise $40 billion for traffic relief and transportation upgrades—supporting a range of successful infrastructure projects across the county—the 710 freeway has remained at a standstill.

Call it the first rule of infrastructure development: If voters don’t like the project—and if a compelling case can’t be made for how it will be financed—it’s not going to happen. (Or as an inside joke going around transit circles puts it: Some projects are so controversial, the city files them as “not in our lifetime.” The 710 extension, though, should be listed as “not in God’s lifetime.”)

This lesson has been brought into stark relief this fall as MTA officials have tried to narrow a long list of options down to twelve congestion-relief alternatives for the 710 freeway. These include a new $3.5 billion tunnel connecting the 710 with the 210 less than five miles away. Among the proposals being considered is an innovative public/private partnership similar to those being developed by the Summit’s Infrastructure financing action team, where private entities could assume some of the cost by charging a toll to use the tunnel.

These new ideas, like traffic on the 710, seem to be getting nowhere fast. Even before a county sales tax measure failed in November—bringing into question how the county would finance the “public” portion of the project—the controversy was mounting in cities in and around the freeway’s path. 

The cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena, La Cañada, and Glendale have united against both a surface and underground option, citing the increased truck traffic and pollution that would come with any extension. The Los Angeles City Council recently joined them by unanimously adopting a resolution against the project. 

Political gridlock

"You would disrupt some neighborhoods that have existed for generations," Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar said this fall. "We, as a city, and any other public agency should not take for granted the communities that would be impacted the most as Metro and Caltrans have.”

State Assemblymember Anthony Portantino summed up the growing conventional wisdom around the project in two words: “It stinks.”

The 710’s gridlock may make drivers crazy and transportation experts cross-eyed, but the ever-elusive solution to this particular infrastructure challenge can serve a stark reminder for the Economic Summit. 

The Summit’s Action Teams are developing a range of cutting-edge tools Californians can use to make their regional economies more prosperous—including a range of new financing mechanisms that would help move transportation projects forward and proposals that would simplify the thorny legal process around infrastructure development. 

But in the end, these tools work only when voters are willing to rally around them. 

Infrastructure projects may create jobs, save money, increase productivity, and drive more profits (and many of them do). But without public support, they’re dead on arrival.

 

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