Beyond Freeways I: Birth of an Asphalt Monster

…The 710 Corridor in Los Angeles County

By Justin Gerdes | Photograph by Leila Dee Dougan

Jessica Tovar lives in Alhambra, California. She lacks a convenient transit option for her commute to work, so weekday mornings, like millions of others who jostle for space on the spiderweb of freeways that lace the Los Angeles region, she drives. Her freeway is Interstate 710 (I-710), officially known as the Long Beach Freeway.

She drives 23 miles south, passing through East Los Angeles and Commerce, Bell and Paramount, to the office of the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, where she works as a project manager. The trip usually takes 45 minutes, but, on a busy Friday afternoon, the drive home can take up to two hours.

Jessica shares the 710 Freeway with trucks–lots of them. The 710 is one of the freeways most heavily traveled by trucks in California. “I can tell you personally because I drive it every day for work that it’s really scary driving with the trucks right next to you,” she says.

She drives on a freeway chock-a-block with big-rig trucks because at its southern terminus the 710 empties into the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the world’s third largest port complex and the entry point for 40% of all imports to the United States. A sharp increase in cargo traffic at the ports over the past two decades, accompanied by an increase in the number of trucks used to haul containers to and from the harbor, has made the 710 Freeway a bottleneck.

Traffic on the freeway, envisioned as a means painlessly to carry drivers north from the San Pedro Bay to Pasadena, often slows to a crawl–like trying to stream a season of “The Wire” over a late-90s dial-up modem.

Logjam at the Ports

An artist’s rendering of what was then called the Los Angeles River Freeway, such as one that ran in the Los Angeles Herald in 1946 and was recently re-published in Los Angeles magazine, depicts an idyllic urban freeway, fronted by park-like greenery and bubbling fountains. Built in the 1950s and 1960s, today’s 710 freeway and environs look nothing like the ideal dreamed up by Los Angeles’ early freeway promoters. Concrete and asphalt, transmission towers and rail yards dominate the views. The freeway is utilitarian, a direct route from the San Pedro Bay ports to rail yards in Vernon and Commerce, or to the SR-60 and I-10 freeways and warehouses in the Inland Empire.

On its path northward, the I-710 passes through 15 cities that together house to over 1 million people, 70% of whom are low-income, minority residents. Emissions from ships docked at the ports, and the locomotives and trucks that service them, account for 10% of the daily particulate matter, 24% of nitrogen oxides, and 73% of the daily sulfur oxides released in the Los Angeles air basin. Regulators have enacted policies that have been somewhat successful in reducing emissions at the ports and from diesel truck engines in recent years, yet the region still struggles to stay within state and federal air quality standards for carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulates.

Cleanup efforts have not been able to keep pace with the surge in cargo traffic. Adoption of standardized shipping containers, developed in the 1950s, greatly lowered the costs of transporting goods across oceans [PDF, p. 13]. Later, the reduction or elimination of tariffs and other barriers to trade lowered the costs to move goods abroad even further. Economic growth in Japan, South Korea, and China led to Asian countries dominating the list of U.S. waterborne trade partners [PDF, p. 13], with the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles absorbing a large share of the growth in container traffic.

In 1990, 4 million TEUs moved through the ports (a “TEU” is a “twenty-foot equivalent,” using a 20-foot container as a benchmark; e.g. a forty-foot container holds 2 TEU); by 2007, the pre-Great Recession peak, the ports moved 16 million TEUs [PDF, p. 44]. By 2025, cargo traffic through the region is predicted to increase by two or three times current levels. Caltrans expects combined activity at the ports to reach 43 million TEUs in 2035 [PDF, p. 3]. Writing at Streetsblog, Tanya Snyder notes that in response to the expansion of the Panama Canal, scheduled to be completed by 2015, proposals are out for $10 billion worth of investments at or near the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles over the next decade, including new rail yards and an expansion of the I-710.

One Freeway, Two Proposed Projects

All agree that maintaining the status quo is untenable. The 710 Freeway is dangerous, congested, and a public health menace. According to Caltrans, the I-710 “experiences elevated accident rates, exceeding the state average for similar facilities in many locations.” For much of its length, the freeway operates at level of service E or F (the worst rating) throughout the day. In studies conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in 2005, the highest levels of estimated cancer risk in the region were clustered in neighborhoods adjacent to the ports, rail yards, and the I-710.

Caltrans and its partner, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), are studying two projects–one in the south, one in the north–that the agencies say would ease congestion on the 710 Freeway and improve local air quality.

The 710 Freeway South

In June 2012, Caltrans and Metro released a draft environmental impact report/environmental impact statement (EIR/EIS) for the I-710 Corridor Project, with a study area focused on an 18-mile stretch of the 710 Freeway from Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach to SR-60. The continuation of a process launched a decade before, then called the I-710 Major Corridor Study, the project is the transportation agencies’ attempt to address three competing goals: accommodating increased truck traffic to and from the ports, improving mobility on the 710 Freeway, and reducing air pollution.

In all but the “no-build” option, project planners envisioned widening the 710 to eight general purpose lanes south of I-405 and up to 10 general purpose lanes north of I-405. Depending on the alternative selected, a four-lane separated freight corridor running at street level or on an elevated platform would extend from Ocean Blvd. in the south to the Union Pacific and BNSF Railroad rail yards in Commerce. The freight corridor would be reserved for heavy-duty conventional or electric trucks that may or may not be tolled. According to Caltrans and Metro, estimated project costs (not including support costs) range from $2.59 billion to $5.31 billion, depending on the alternative selected, with construction slated to begin in 2020.

Environmental and community advocates had rejected earlier I-710 expansion plans, which would have eliminated more than 600 homes and increased truck traffic by three times. “To increase truck traffic by over 100,000 was unacceptable to corridor residents,” says Angelo Logan, Executive Director, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “There was not only the issue of displacement of homes but also air quality impacts and quality-of-life impacts that mobilized thousands of people. There was a groundswell. Local electeds, as well as community members, compelled Caltrans to stop that particular process and go back to the drawing board and work with the community members and local electeds to come up with a project that would be more balanced.”

Neither local advocates nor the Region 9 office [PDF] of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were convinced that the result of that process, the I-710 Corridor Project Draft EIR/EIS, was balanced. Pushback from the EPA and community activists compelled Caltrans and Metro to recirculate the draft environmental impact report for further study. The revised environmental document is scheduled for release in fall 2014.

The 710 Freeway north

As far back as 1959, state and local transportation officials have planned to “complete” what today is called the 710 Freeway. At its northern terminus, SR-710 empties onto Valley Blvd. in Alhambra. About 4.5 miles to the north, in Pasadena, a spur of the SR-710 extends south from the I-210. How–or whether–to fill this blank spot on the map of the Greater Los Angeles freeway system has been the subject of a decades-long legal battle, with proponents pushing for what they call a “gap closure” and opponents, led by the City of South Pasadena, rejecting what they call a freeway “extension.”

Until about a decade ago, transportation officials’ preferred solution was a surface freeway running from Alhambra through South Pasadena to Pasadena. That proposal is now dead. The last blow: Senate Bill 416, authored by State Senator Carol Liu and signed by Governor Jerry Brown on October 1, which compels Caltrans to expedite the sale [PDF] of residential property it purchased and held for decades in anticipation of extending SR-710 north to the I-210 Freeway.

Denied the surface freeway, Metro launched a study of alternatives. In an analysis released in January 2013, Metro identified five alternatives to be studied in a draft environmental impact report/environmental impact statement, which is scheduled for release in spring 2014. After the standard “no-build” option, the alternatives include: bus rapid transit, with service between East Los Angeles and Pasadena; a light-rail line, with service between East Los Angeles and Pasadena and a connection to the Metro Gold Line; and a 4.5-mile freeway tunnel connecting the SR-710 to I-210.

Two Proposed Projects, One Freeway?

With Caltrans and Metro studying two mega projects on the same freeway that, depending on the alternative selected, would each be among the largest infrastructure projects under construction in the United States, questions arise: Why aren’t transportation planners viewing the I-710 and SR-710, south and north, as one corridor? What about the cumulative impacts? And, are community advocates collaborating on a common vision for the 710 Freeway? I put these questions to community leaders in the south and north. (Metro declined to make officials available to be interviewed for this series.)

“We did raise this issue in our comment letter [PDF],” Adrian Martinez, staff attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, told me. “I think there’s an argument: It’s one road and two massive projects. It’ll be interesting to see how the agencies address that criticism. My sense is the south project has more chance of going forward; the north project, I think has a tough row to hoe, because they’ve got to justify an incredibly expensive project to make the maps look prettier.”

“On the coordination, there hasn’t been tons,” he says. “There’s been some efforts to try, but I think they’re very distinct groups. L.A. is almost its own country; different neighborhoods have different organizing units.”

“In the south, there are safety issues, there’s work that has to be done; a lot of that work could be relatively inexpensive. But they want to do this large expansion project. The difference is I think on the south, at least implicitly, the coalition has said, Go forward with the project as long as it’s done right. On the north, it’s: Let’s just stop this project in its tracks. On the south, I think the coalition is willing to stop the project if it’s done wrong. From a transportation end, the south needs a lot; a lot of the transportation is a mess down there. If you’re going to spend this much money, make the right investments–in pedestrian infrastructure, bicycling infrastructure, transit infrastructure–not just a big concrete slab for single-passenger automobiles,” says Martinez.

“I do see the corridor as a corridor” says Angelo Logan. “But with the expansion we are contending with an existing freeway. In the north of the 710 … there is no existing freeway that goes through that community. They have no freeway they are contending with today. They’re not moving towards an improvement; they are trying to maintain an environment that exists.”

He goes on: “There’s a bit more attention given to the north end because of the political engagement of jurisdictions at the north end. Otherwise, to the extent that there’s an example of the way in which class plays out in the environment, it is that during the original construction of the freeway, South Pasadena was able to stop the project through their community. And down at the south end, it moved through and caused a great amount of havoc.”

South Pasadena Mayor Richard Schneider says, on coordination with the south, “We tried it a couple of times; we don’t really get anywhere. Logically, we should join forces and fight this thing.” But, he quickly adds, “I think Caltrans and Metro are making a big mistake in segmenting the project. Segmentation of projects is illegal under CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act]. You have to consider it one project.”

“How can they expand the 710 south by so many lanes for truck traffic if they’re not going to continue on the 710 up through the north to go up to northern California and elsewhere? They said that the two projects aren’t related. It just doesn’t make sense. We wrote them a letter saying, You know, if you don’t get rid of this segmentation and consider this one project and do an environmental impact report on the whole thing, that’s one of the things we’re going to sue you on in court. That doesn’t make much impact on them; they just sort of ignore it.”

“The agency is saying that they’re not looking to pour thousands of trucks through the north 710 extension. In fact, they’re saying that there won’t be very many trucks at all on the northern extension–they’ll turn right at the 60 freeway and at the 10 freeway, going to east California. Of course, no one believes it,” Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard told me.

Road Projects Don’t Get Better With Age

Adrian Martinez also faults planners for evaluating projects in isolation, and he bemoans their lack of imagination. “Freight planning that’s taken place in California has been one of these processes where the industry and the transportation planners just create a list of their pet projects that they want to facilitate the movement of goods. It hasn’t been as strategic as it should be. A lot of these legacy projects have been on the books for a long time. If you’re going to assume there’s going to be this much freight, there needs to be better coordination on how you accommodate it without overrunning communities with containers and trucks and ships and trains,” he says.

“The freight industry, from a transportation planning standpoint, is kind of the Wild West; there’s no method to the madness of warehouse development out in the Inland Empire. I think it’s only going to get more troubling. We’re seeing huge facilities like the World Logistics Center, out in Moreno Valley, which is the equivalent of 700 football fields of warehouse space, 42 million square-feet. It’s 70-80 miles from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, and it has no access to rail.”

On the proposed SR-710 tunnel freeway, Martinez says, “These road projects, they’re not like wine, they don’t get better with age. A bad idea doesn’t necessarily get better the longer it’s on the shelf. A lot of people look at this project and they’re like: This is just a bad idea. To make matters worse, it’s an expensive bad idea.”

“I think it is a vestige that these mega-freeways are the way to get things done. There are other options out there. I hope that L.A. can get to the point where it’s exploring taking away highways to reclaim them for the public. This notion that if you add capacity that’s going to solve your transportation problems–L.A.’s the example that it doesn’t.”

Beyond Freeways: Introduction

NEXT: Part II: The Beast that Eats Our Children
Part III: Riding to the Rescue
Part IV: The Price to Pay

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Once upon a time, environmentalists lived in the forests, while the many of the rest of us moved the suburbs to be near the forests. Today we’re on our way back. Living near nature is an attractive notion, but many who tried it found nature soon vanished and they were left isolated. For both environmental and social reasons, living in the suburbs or the forest is not sustainable. Today we know cities are good for people and for forests. We know that the less land each of us occupies, the more space there will be for nature. In a city, we have a smaller footprint. Living in a city isn’t only good for the planet, it’s good for all of us. When home, work, shopping end entertainment are close, it encourages walking and promotes the active lifestyle that keeps us healthy. The New Colonist is about moving in from the suburbs, moving into and reclaiming towns and cities that have been depopulated, and building more housing in healthy cities. It’s about building smarter and closer-in new developments; building transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in new communities, and bringing more transportation options to communities where a car is presently the only option. Sustainable city living–chronicling the return from the suburban diaspora–is the focus of Newcolonist.com. …Move In. City Life is good for you. It’s good for the your health. It’s good for the planet. Eric Miller Richard Risemberg