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San Gabriel Valley cities clash over 710 Freeway options

City council members whose communities would be impacted by 710 Freeway traffic options are, from left, Barbara Messina of Alhambra, John Fasana of Duarte, Ara Najarian of Glendale and Michael Cacciotti of South Pasadena. Sharon McNary/KPCC

What's the best way to get traffic from the end of the 710 Freeway in Alhambra to the 210 in Pasadena?

The Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles and the League of Women Voters Pasadena hosted a forum on Monday, where council members from Alhambra, Duarte, Glendale and South Pasadena sparred over whether building a tunnel or constructing light rail and making traffic modifications to the existing roads best answered that question.

Each insisted they wanted a solution that would help the entire region, but there was still a hint of NIMBY in the air.

Alhambra & Duarte

Alhambra Councilwoman Barbara Messina wants a five-mile tunnel so commuters stop using her city's streets to get to the 710 Freeway.

"Those are not Alhambra people!" she complained to the audience.

Duarte Councilman John Fasana also sees a tunnel as a good option because it would ease the traffic in Duarte, where the 210 and 605 freeways meet. It would spread the traffic burden more widely across the valley.

"I think a tunnel is the option that we really ought to look at seriously if we want to get the most economic vitality into this region," Fasana said.

Glendale & South Pasadena

Council members from Glendale and South Pasadena, by contrast, want a combination of light rail, busway and better traffic controls.

South Pasadena Councilman Michael Cacciotti questioned why taxpayers (and possibly private investors) should spend billions on a five-mile tunnel for vehicles when the same amount of money could build out more of the light rail network.

"You'd finally start to reach people in the entire county, and we could also connect with projects in Riverside and San Bernardino counties."

Both are expensive, which will create jobs?

The tunnel has a potential price tag of $3-5 billion, and the light rail project, $2.5 billion – more than the $780 million set aside for construction by the sales taxes raised through Measure R, which voters approved in 2008.

That said, Messina argued a tunnel construction project could create thousands of union jobs for many years. Seeing the opportunity, three unions (representing laborers, engineers and sprinkler fitters) are part of the pro-tunnel 710 Coalition.

Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian, who opposes a tunnel, conceded that it would create jobs for specialized workers (to run the gigantic underground boring machines) but would not benefit the region with larger employment numbers.

Najarian wants a light rail instead because he argued it would create more sustainable jobs – not just construction and ongoing operation and maintenance jobs – but housing and retail, that would grow alongside transit lines.

Tunnel fears: No exits? Traffic magnet?

Tunnel supporters see the benefit of an underground freeway because it would reduce cut-through traffic on their city streets. But with no exits between Pasadena and Alhambra, those with business at points in between would still be on the surface streets.

Najarian said that if a tunnel were to be built, trucks should be barred from using it for safety, air quality and congestion reasons.

Tunnel opponents said adding a freeway tunnel would be a magnet for more traffic to the region. Najarian called that phenomenon "supply induced demand."

"It means that now that there's a freeway, cars from all over the region that were otherwise finding other ways to get from point A to B are going to be on the tunnel," Najarian said.

He also invoked the scary aspect of being in a tunnel with no exits.

"It's dangerous," Najarian said. "Just think about it, folks, five miles of tunnel. If something happens, you're stuck in there."

Cacciotti agreed. "It's a significant public safety risk."

Messina countered that Europeans routinely use long train and highway tunnels with few mishaps.

How to pay for a tunnel

One option is for a public-private partnership to raise the money to build the tunnel, and then tolls would be charged to pay back the construction costs. Those tolls wouldn't be cheap enough for normal commuters to pay, say $5, tunnel opponents argue – they would be much higher, around $14 – a level that is more likely to be paid by commercial trucks.

There's also this question – if the region can somehow raise $5 billion or more to build a tunnel, to cross just five miles of never-built freeway, could that money have been spent more wisely elsewhere?

Cacciotti said for that kind of money you could have several new light rail lines that could better connect more of Los Angeles' population and job centers and its neighboring counties of Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange.

Both Najarian, who opposes a tunnel and Fasana, who supports it, sit on the Metro board. Presumably their votes would cancel each other out.

To learn more

This clash is decades old, but now city leaders can dig for new evidence to support their arguments in a 2,200-page, $42.5 million environmental study, released earlier this month. Caltrans produced the report on behalf of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which will decide what to build and how to pay for it.

What's next

At least two public hearings begin next month, on Saturday, April 11 at East Los Angeles College, and Tuesday, April 14 at Pasadena Convention Center.

By law, substantive questions that the public raises at those hearings, or submits in writing by July 6, must be responded to by Caltrans at some later date. Online comments are also accepted.