Even though the governor vetoed a measure last month that would have ensured that a new alternative be examined for the I-710 Freeway Corridor Project, state officials and environmental groups say the plan will likely be considered anyway.
SB 811, authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park/Long Beach), would have required that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) consider what’s called Community Alternative 7 in the environmental-review process for the I-710 Corridor Project.
The billion-dollar infrastructure project calls for widening an 18-mile section of the freeway. The number-one goal of the project is to improve air quality and public health, followed by decreasing accidents and reducing traffic. The project is considered one of the “largest infrastructure goods-movement projects” in the country.
Although the governor vetoed the legislation, Lara said in an Oct. 11 statement that Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty has assured him that “the concerns of the community will be heard and Community Alternative 7 will be analyzed.”
Lara added, “Though this bill was not signed, we have a relationship and a seat at the table that will still enable us to advocate for clean air, safe roads and healthy communities.”
The new alternative was brought forward by a contingent of community and environmental activists who claim that existing alternatives in the draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the freeway project “fall short of providing a long-term solution to the project area’s congestion, air quality and travel demands,” according to an online campaign letter.
Excluding a no-build option, existing alternatives call for expanding the I-710 Freeway with up to as many as 10 new general-purpose lanes. Alternatives also propose adding a four-lane freight corridor and developing a zero-emissions goods-movement system.
Alternative 7, however, specifically proposes to: invest in public transportation; mandate a committed zero-emission freight corridor; integrate the restoration of natural resources, such as the Los Angeles River; add pedestrian and bicycle elements; and include community benefits, such as double-pane windows, air-filtration systems and landscaped green spaces.
Seventh District Long Beach City Councilmember James Johnson, a member of the I-710 Project Committee that consists of local city officials and makes recommendations to Caltrans on the project, said in a phone interview that the committee already recommended at its Jan. 31 meeting that Alternative 7 be considered. He said Lara’s legislation would have just forced Caltrans to study the option.
Earlier this year, the Project Committee voted to re-circulate environmental reports on the project to provide updated data and studies on adding a zero-emissions freight corridor and expanding general-purpose lanes.
Johnson has supported a zero-emissions demonstration project that would test technology involving cargo trucks using an overhead electrical catenary-type system, similar to trolleys, near the ports, but this proposal has yet to be fully approved.
Some environmental groups and health experts, however, say that expanding the freeway alone won’t reduce air pollution but actually increase capacity that could add even more emissions over time.
“Freeway construction and expansion has led to a car-dependent Los Angeles with among the worst air pollution in the nation,” said Dr. Roberta Kato, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and an environmental health ambassador with Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, in an op-ed piece published in local media last year. “Now we must choose our children’s health and envision a healthy environment for all communities.”
Dr. Felix Nuñez, chief medical officer of the Family Health Care Centers of Greater Los Angeles, states in another online post that high levels of exposure to carbon-based pollutants along the I-710 increase incidents of asthma, other respiratory illnesses, cancer and diseases of the cardiovascular and neurological system.
“Experience and research on induced traffic suggests that if we expand a roadway to relieve traffic, additional drivers will fill the new ‘non-congested’ space, leading to an increase in emissions,” he said.
Johnson, who supported SB 811, said it’s still unclear what alternative is best since Caltrans hasn’t fully studied them yet. The goal of the measure was to make sure Caltrans looks at all alternatives and determines the costs, benefits and any “unintended consequences” of each proposal, he said.
“I continue to strongly believe all the alternatives should be studied,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited about this project. We have a new opportunity to meet all the goals of this project… I think it’s important we make data-based decisions.”
Johnson said new data on the proposals listed in the re-circulated EIR won’t be released or up for approval for about 18 months. “A decision point is about a year away,” he said.
The new alternative and the legislation, however, was supported by various community and environmental nonprofits, including the Coalition for Clean Air, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and the Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, among others.
After SB 811 passed both the Assembly and the Senate earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown said in an Oct. 11 letter that he supported the goals of the legislation but wouldn’t sign it because the measure would have violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and created a “precedent” by usurping the established process.
“I commend the author’s objectives in this bill to improve air quality, ensure access to bicycle and pedestrian paths and increase access to public transit,” Brown stated. “These are goals we share. However, statutorily requiring the project environmental impact report to consider specified mitigation measures that exceed the project’s scope is a precedent I don’t wish to establish.”
Some city officials support the governor’s decision. Signal Hill City Councilmember Larry Forester, also a member of the I-710 Project Committee, said the staff members of the Gateway Cities Council of Governments (COG) were not in favor of the bill.
“The reason we were against it is because it suddenly took the 14 years of our efforts on the 710 expansion on track lanes and said, ‘Nope, this is what we’re going to do,’” Forester said. “It’s taking everything and trying to fold it into a CEQA, and it doesn’t work.”
Forester said widening the freeway is considered the best way to reduce both pollution and traffic impacts, adding that, the longer cargo trucks sit in traffic, the more pollution is emitted. He added that the committee had already developed an air-quality action plan.
Still, Brown said Caltrans would continue to work with Sen. Lara and local stakeholders on identifying mitigation measures within the scope of CEQA that “ensures the I-710 project benefits motorists, goods movement, the community and the environment.”
Patricia Ochoa, deputy policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air, said in a phone interview that community members plan to work with Caltrans in coming months to promote Alternative 7 as a “more comprehensive vision” for the community.
“Our plan is to move forward and provide a way to implement Alternative 7,” Ochoa said. “We’re still working to make sure Caltrans looks at the alternative as a whole. We don’t want to piecemeal it. We want a whole concept together. We think it’s important because we feel the communities around the corridor have been impacted by the 710 for years.”
Johnson added, however, that a major factor in determining the best alternative is finances. He said estimates put the I-710 Corridor Project at about $5 billion to $6 billion but only about 10 percent of that has been secured.
Developing a sound environmental report that can attract state and federal funding will be critical to coming up with the required financing, Johnson said. The councilmember added that the longer the project takes, the longer pollution and traffic will persist.
“Every year that goes by that we’re not modernizing the 710 is another year of dirty air and families being kept apart,” he said. “I do think we need to move this forward.”