The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) board of directors on March 1 approved a much anticipated measure initiated in 2008 to modernize the 710 Freeway.
Eleven of the 15 board members– including Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and several L.A. County Supervisors, including Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn– voted unanimously to amend and then adopt improvement project Alternative 5C.
The $6-billion project includes adding truck-bypass lanes to the 710 Freeway around the 405-Freeway interchange, pursuing funds for zero- or near-zero-emission trucks, removing nonconforming trucks and adding bike and pedestrian bridges.
The measure also includes funding for health-benefits programs for communities near the 19-mile 710 Freeway, including air filters for schools, senior centers and hospitals.
Ernesto Chavez, director of highway programs for Metro, explained that current funding amounts to about $1.1 billion– $590 million from Measure R in 2008 and $500 million from Measure M in 2016.
The board had also considered a “no build” alternative and Alternative 7, which would have added elevated, clean-emissions truck lanes to the freeway at a cost of $10 billion.
According to a Metro staff presentation at the board meeting, Alternative 5C causes less residential displacement than Alternative 7 would have (109 homes versus 158) and less non-residential displacement (121 properties vs. 206). It also improves air quality better overall than Alternative 7, with less impact to parks, wildlife refuges and surrounding neighborhoods. The approved alternative would also eliminate the visual impact of Alternative 7’s elevated truck route.
The board first unanimously approved two amendments to Alternative 5C before approving it. The Motion 5.1 amendment accelerates zero-emission vehicle technology and Motion 5.2 (proposed by Garcia, Solis and Hahn, among others) prioritizes “early-action” projects and promotes a local-hiring policy as well as studying how to further reduce property impacts caused by the project.
Significantly, the 5.2 amendment would delay the freeway widening initially included in the Alternative 5C plan.
According to a Feb. 28 statement by Garcia and Solis, the early-action program will improve nine interchanges from East Los Angeles to the Port of Los Angeles over 10 years and add sound walls to reduce noise to the communities surrounding the 710.
Neighborhood improvements include the construction of a new Shoemaker Bridge, expansion of Cesar Chavez Park, creation of new bike and pedestrian pathways, safer on and off ramps coming in and out of Long Beach and improvements to roads and neighborhood streets along the 710, including major streets such as Pacific Coast Highway, Anaheim, Willow, Wardlow, Artesia and Del Amo.
Specifically, the statement notes that Motion 5.2 amends Alternative 5C as follows:
• Fast-tracks I-710 early-action program that improves interchanges, freeway crossings and on/off ramp bottlenecks. It also supports moving forward immediately with community benefits including bike lanes, neighborhood street improvements and pedestrian improvements.
• Requires Metro staff to return to the board for approval of the remainder of the project elements after completing the early-action program, including any widening, and to re-evaluate and revalidate the environmental documents using the most current State and local evaluation measures at that time.
• Requires Metro staff to further minimize any potential displacements, if not outright eliminate, residential, business, and sensitive land-use displacements that would result from this project.
• Fast-tracks near-zero and zero-emission truck deployment and on/off dock-rail freight improvements.
• Asks Metro to hold an industry forum and develop a strategy for demand
At the March 1 meeting, Metro staff recommended Alternative 5C as the “locally preferred alternative,” after conducting three public hearings in August 2017 and two in October, receiving concerns about construction impacts, including residential relocations.
Abdollah Ansari, construction and engineering officer for Metro, explained that the 710 update has been necessary for some time.
“We believe that this recommendation addresses a lot of deficiencies in this corridor,” Ansari said. “This corridor has grown immensely in traffic, population, population density and demand for travel for both cars and trucks serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.”
He noted that one-third of trucks going to and from the ports use the Alameda Corridor freight rail and the rest use surface roads.
“These trucks impact neighborhoods, impact air quality and create a lot of congestion in the corridor,” Ansari said.
Chavez said that daily truck trips on the 710 are expected to increase from 36,000 today to 55,000 by 2035 and that their high-diesel emissions impact air quality.
Garcia said that the twin ports accommodate 40 percent of all of the goods imported and exported in the U.S. He also noted how much of the 710-Freeway project impacted Long Beach.
“Almost 50 percent of this project is in the city of Long Beach,” he said. “And we are impacted, certainly by pollution, […] but also [by] what’s going [on] with trucks going in and out of neighborhoods.”
He also noted that Alternative 7 would have created a “double-decking visual blight” from Long Beach and other neighborhoods as opposed to Alternative 5C.
“Almost 90 percent of the 5C alternative is within the existing right-of-way,” he said. “So, when we talk about issues like widening or additional truck opportunities, we’re talking about a small percentage of this actual project.”
He noted that modernizing the interchanges along the 710 Freeway would ease congestion and the flow of trucks coming in and out of neighborhoods and that’s why it is supported by all councilmembers of districts along the freeway.
Not all board members were enthusiastic about the approved plan. Hahn said that, though she would have preferred a more radical policy to address what she called a “diesel death zone,” she believes Alternative 5C, though not ideal, is more feasible.
“I think 5C falls short,” she said. “[Alternative 7] would reduce pollution, reduce congestion and it actually separates the cars from the trucks. 5C only separates the trucks for just three miles of that 19-mile project. But we don’t get the benefit of the early-action projects with 7, and […] 5C looks to be the more realistic option.”
But she said she would have wanted Alternative 5C to include embedded charging lanes for zero-emission trucks.
“I believe that zero-emissions is not a radical policy,” she said. “Both of our ports will be zero-emissions by 2035.”
The crowd attending the meeting at the Metro boardroom in Los Angeles the morning of March 1 was over capacity, with 86 people asking to speak during the public comment portion of the freeway issue.
Many speakers were advocates and residents of affected communities, including East L.A., South Gate, Bell, Lynwood and Huntington Park, who opposed Alternative 5C because they felt it didn’t do enough regarding air pollution, funding local jobs and attaining zero-emissions. They also objected to the project displacing residents, especially from potential freeway expansion.
Dilia Ortega, identifying herself as a resident of South Gate and member of the advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), said she was disappointed.
“I’m here today to express my opposition and, honestly, just my disgust at Alternative 5C,” she said. “Alternative 5C, no matter how you spin it, is a dirty-diesel-truck project and it’s really just going to be pillaging through communities of color. We deserve a project that brings zero emissions, no displacement and that also brings jobs to our communities. Really what you’re funding is an ‘early action’ to our deathbeds.”
Another member of CBE, Andy Ortega, concurred with the perception that the project would unfairly discriminate against the affected communities.
“We don’t need any more diesel trucks passing through our communities,” Ortega said. “5C is expansion of the problem, [of] freeways we definitely do not need. It is unjust and it is environmental racism.”
However, other speakers representing interest groups such as terminal operators, shipping groups and Metro collaborators, such as Southern California Edison (SCE) and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), felt differently. Maria Coronado, who said she represented the Southwest Carpenters and the Building Trades, supported the project’s efforts.
“We need freeway expansion,” she said. “As you all know, Los Angeles is known for its crowded traffic. […] We need freeway expansion. Alternative 5C is the best, common-sense approach to improving traffic conditions on the 710 Freeway. […] The project will also create carpenter and building-trade jobs. These jobs will boost our local economy.”
During the meeting, Los Angeles City Council member Mike Bonin clarified with staff before the vote that approving Alternative 5C did not mean automatic freeway expansion.
“If we vote ‘yes’ on Supervisor Solis’s proposal today, we are voting ‘yes’ on a proposal that says, ‘Let’s not do the expansion; let’s do the good community stuff, […] work on additional environmental stuff– ways to get to zero– and then, years from now, come back to us to discuss the expansion,’” he said.
Ansari confirmed that freeway expansion of additional lanes would not be part of the project’s early-action efforts.
“Widening of the freeway for implementation of that lane […] is deferred, primarily based on the fact that there is no money for it, cost is prohibitive, the two major freeway-to-freeway interchanges are cost-prohibitive to do,” he said. “But that does not stop the implementation of immediately-needed safety and operational improvement projects at those local interchanges as early-action projects.”
Garcetti further confirmed that the goal of the project is not freeway expansion.
“The meat of the matter is getting to zero emissions,” he said. “If it never is widened, great, let’s [implement zero emissions] it with what exists there today. […] Before there’d be any widening of any freeways, that is something that would come back and I think this board has been very clear what its opinion is of that.”
Staff noted that the timetable for work would not begin before winter, 2018, when the Metro board will formally adopt the alternative, initiate work and seek funding for the remaining $4.9 billion required for the project. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) must also approve Metro’s environmental report before work can begin.