It’s one of the joys of living in Los Angeles. You can be beetling along in traffic, ruing the day gridlock was invented, and then have an epiphany smack right up against your windshield when you realize that you’re in a neighborhood you’ve never noticed before. The what-is-this-place delight is all the more heady when you’re an L.A. know-it-all. That was me as I rolled into South Pasadena 12 years ago, sunlight flickering through the thick tree canopy onto turn-of-the-century stoops and gables. Blocks of Craftsman homes led to a drowsy downtown with an old Carnegie library and a new Gold Line station. What I thought was just the nether end of Pasadena was actually a city of its own, founded in 1888 and covering three-and-a-half square miles. There were ice cream shops and small parks and, for me, the general sense of wonder at finding Brigadoon next door to the nation’s second-largest city.
Within a year my wife and I were marching through that downtown in the local Fourth of July parade with our kindergartner’s soccer team. After signing the papers on a 97-year-old fixer-upper in town, we figured the half decade that our family had lived in Long Beach was behind us. But our connection to the port city wouldn’t be so readily severed. Soon we’d learn of the interminable campaign to extend the Long Beach Freeway through our newly adopted town to the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena.
Linking the 710 to the 210, as they’re known in SoCal-speak, has been the plan since the Cold War. From the time it was completed in 1965, the north 710 has dead-ended at Valley Boulevard in El Sereno. From there, if you want to reach the 210 and the freeways it spills onto (namely, the 5), you’d make a right into Alhambra, then hang a left at Fremont Avenue, and with a couple of other turns, hit the on-ramp of the 210 on the outskirts of Old Pasadena. In the 1950s, Caltrans began buying up hundreds of homes between the two freeways, with visions of one continuous route blasting through South Pasadena. Only, South Pasadena resisted. So after decades of legal battles, Caltrans floated a new plan in the 2000s to tunnel under South Pasadena instead. To people who don’t live there, the proposal probably sounded like a reasonable compromise. It’d be like a subway, albeit several times larger. With cars and trucks. To many of the 26,000 people who do live in South Pasadena, though, it’s easy to view the project somewhat like the Big One, an inevitability with a toll that will be massive yet unknowable until the time comes.
People think of L.A. as a new city. But what’s new are the projects built on the rubble of an older L.A.: the Bunker Hill homes that gave way to skyscrapers downtown, the mansions supplanted by apartments on Millionaire’s Row in Pasadena, the Japanese fishing village that was paved over on Terminal Island, the homes of Chavez Ravine that stood before Dodger Stadium landed, the neighborhoods cleared for the Santa Monica Freeway and the 710.
I suppose that from afar, the resistance to another freeway could seem overly dramatic or selfish. NIMBYism rarely looks good from someone else’s backyard, and commutes in the region are torturous. Officials were already trying to shrink travel times when they cut South Pasadena in half for the 110 freeway in 1941. A freeway tunnel would certainly inflict less harm on the city than a surface freeway, even at this scale: One plan calls for dual 6.3-mile double-decker tunnels. Tolls would be more than likely. To deal with the bottled-up vehicle exhaust, there’d be a pair of ventilation towers with filters. In their $40 million draft environmental report, Caltrans and Metro claimed that the freeway would lead to a “minimal” elevated cancer risk—hardly reassuring, given that my wife’s breast cancer is in remission. The report was so wan, the Environmental Protection Agency deemed it inadequate. The South Coast Air Quality Management District went further, concluding that the tunnel would raise the cancer risk to unacceptable levels. The rates are especially high beside the 710, a major truck corridor. Trucks use diesel, spewing tiny carcinogenic airborne particles that lodge in the lungs.
And the plan is for more trucks. In 2007, Los Angeles County officials declared that by lengthening the 710, goods could be hauled from the docks of Long Beach and Los Angeles to an “inland port”—storage yards, essentially—in the Antelope Valley. “The inland port is a necessity if we’re not going to choke in congestion in the Los Angeles basin,” county supervisor Michael Antonovich said at the time. “Congestion” may be a word that we can all agree to hate, but an underlying goal is to increase shipping volume. The freight business is only growing. That’s why boats are getting bigger, and it’s why the Panama and the Suez canals have undergone expansion projects, while China has designs to carve a new canal across Nicaragua. The 710 extension would be our version of a bigger canal.
“I just want to make my drive easier” is what my friend at work says whenever the topic comes up. He’s a preservationist, and he’s all for a 710 tunnel. But for every study that says freeways relieve traffic, there’s another concluding that they don’t. Build a freeway, and more drivers want to crowd onto that freeway. (The phenomenon is called “induced demand,” for all of you commuters on the 405 who’ve seen the $1.1 billion expansion quicken your rush hour by zero seconds.)
Whereas Sierra Madre, Pasadena, Glendale, and the City of Los Angeles oppose the 710 extension, two of South Pasadena’s other neighbors, San Marino and Alhambra, claim it will reduce traffic on their streets. In fact, Alhambra has paid at least $2 million since 2006 for lobbyists to promote the freeway. It even holds an annual “710 Day” celebration on the major thoroughfare that for more than two years has been festooned with banners bearing slogans like “Keep Our Kids Safe” and “Relieve Congestion.” Meanwhile the city is green-lighting the construction of tens of thousands of feet of retail space and hundreds upon hundreds of residential units.
San Marino, an enclave so exclusive that it doesn’t have apartments, has been more decorous, putting pro-freeway slogans on light pole banners. Way back, the town was supposedly on the route of the proposed 710. These days it helps fund the campaign to keep the 710 on track through South Pasadena; since 2009, the tab has reached $46,000. This is the same town in which residents expressed concern about the “riffraff” its short-lived farmers’ market would draw; a proposal to establish bike lanes through San Marino resulted in a mailer warning that nonresidents (maybe apartment dwellers) would be sharing the road with their kids. The $4 weekend entrance fee for Lacy Park, the town’s green space, is aimed at nonresidents, too. Imagine what they’d say if those people had to drive under their jungle gym.
Sometimes I try to envision life with a 710 tunnel. For inspiration I can always look to Google Maps: There, right by Old Pasadena, what everybody calls the 210 is already labeled the Long Beach Freeway. I can pretend that the new freeway has swept the streets clear of congestion, as freeways have magically unclogged streets in so many other neighborhoods. Above the rooftops I might be able to see a ventilation tower from my yard and rest assured that the kind of truck fire that melted a tunnel on the 5 near Santa Clarita in 2007 would never happen under my kids’ high school.
And when thoughts linger on the travails of Boston’s Big Dig or the tunnel-boring leviathan that’s been stuck under Seattle for two years, I remind myself that the whole thing could be moot: The agencies behind the 710 plan have vowed to consider rail and bus alternatives, too. So when the final decision is announced in mid-2017, the extension could be laid to rest. The odds may be as likely as those of a freeway fixing our traffic problems, but it’s possible, right?