The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors voted unanimously today to approve a $6 billion version of the 710 project that could eventually pave the way for the addition of one lane in each direction of the 19-mile stretch of freeway in an attempt to reduce pollution and improve safety on the freeway that feeds the nation’s largest port complex.
Plans to enhance the 710 have been in talks for about 19 years and the Metro vote is just one of a series of future hurdles the plan needed to clear, including a similar vote by CalTrans, before construction begins. The project, which is expected to take about 40 years to complete, is not expected to break ground until about 2022.
The plan approved by Metro with its vote Thursday morning at its downtown LA headquarters includes amendments proposed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis—co-authored by Mayor Robert Garcia—that would create avenues to create a local hiring program and possibly phase out all of the projected displacements currently forecasted by the project’s environmental impact report (EIR).
While it does not include an immediate expansion of the freeway, it could include a widening of the 710, if later approved by Metro, after smaller improvements are completed and more funding is acquired. Until then, the vote will allow for smaller portions of the project like street level improvements, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements to commence.
While a large percentage of the improvements included in the project are set to be carried out in the freeway’s current footprint, some 109 homes and nearly 160 non-residential buildings stand to be bumped by future construction of the 710 project. Solis’ motion, introduced earlier this week, would have future Metro Boards further study any potential displacements with an aim of eliminating them altogether.
A friendly amendment from board member Mike Bonin will require any construction, whether they result in displacement or not, to face votes from the board for approval.
“This may not be the perfect plan, but indeed at least we’re trying to make some incremental changes that will take us where we need to go,” Solis said.
Garcia pointed out the positives for Long Beach, including a reconfiguration of the end of the 710 in Long Beach which would reunite a currently inaccessible parcel of Cesar Chavez Park, and said that arterial modifications would improve the flow of trucks in and out of neighboring communities.
“Right now we have an inaccessible piece of green park space,” Garcia said. “If you’ve ever driven into Downtown Long Beach, on the left you’ll see this odd, large green piece of land that no one can access. Realigning the freeway will allow us to double the size of what will be the largest park in a community that is park poor.”
A proposal made by Supervisor Janice Hahn last month to have the project include embedded electric charging capabilities for electric trucks was left out as including it would have involved a new EIR. However, a portion of that proposal, which doubles funding for zero-emission vehicle technology to $200 million was accepted as part of the board’s vote.
The vote comes despite a continued outcry from neighboring communities who have pushed for mandatory zero emissions and guaranteed elimination of displacement. For nearly three hours those community members shared their stories of living in the “Diesel Death Zone” and the health problems that them and their family and friends have suffered through, and pushed the board to vote down alternative 5c.
Meanwhile, representatives from labor and port entities pushed for the modernization of the freeway, which will likely include expansion, as a way to ensure that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach can increase their competitiveness and create new jobs through the construction process.
“You can put all the bells and whistles on 5c and at the end of the day you’re still approving a dirty, road-widening project,” said Jorge Rivera, a program director of Long Beach Residents Empowered, a housing rights community group. “It disproportionately impacts communities of color. We have a huge housing crisis and an increasing homeless population, to displace one person is one too many. Direct CalTrans to design a better project. Stop trying to ram this project down our throats and into our lungs.”
Jessica Alvarenga, a representative from the Pacific Merchants Shipping Association, like many others who spoke on behalf of the industry, said the project was necessary for the health of the economy.
“It is important that this project is considered to maintain port competitiveness and alleviate traffic congestion,” Alvarenga said. “The 710 provides access to the nation’s largest port complex which generates hundreds of thousands of jobs and thus investing in the 710 corridor is investing in the growth of our economy.”
Due to the fact that some utilities will need to be relocated, and because Metro currently has only about $1.2 billion of the projected $6 billion the project is expected to cost, any construction will be carried out in segments.
Metro staff members advised that it would identify portions of the project that were cheaper, and didn’t result in displacement, but also provided community benefits like fast-tracked “early- action” projects. These would include the additions of bike lanes, improvement of pedestrian right of ways as well as arterial improvements where surface streets intersect the freeway.
Major pieces of the project, like realigning freeway intersections where a majority of the displacement could take place, are the costlier portions and would be pushed down the road. Even if the remaining $5 billion were to become available tomorrow the Metro board ensured that construction would not take place automatically, adding language to the vote that would require approval from the board.
While the community pushed for zero emissions, the board’s vote did not rule out the possibility of it becoming part of the project down the line. Hahn made note that while CalTrans will build the freeway, Metro decides what gets to drive on it.
“This can actually be a project that leads in the future with the kind of technology that doesn’t impact people’s health,” Hahn said. “I really do believe that today is the day to tell the world that CalTrans can build whatever we tell them to build, but we’re the ones that can decide what kind of vehicles drive on those lanes that CalTrans builds.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti echoed that sentiment in his closing comments prior to the board’s vote. Garcetti sympathized with the crowd that gathered to voice their opposition to the project, noting that his grandfather lost two homes to freeway expansion projects and that he was the only one in his family to not have cancer after a lifetime of growing up near freeways.
He expressed optimism that zero emissions will be a reality by the time that the Olympics come to town in 2028 and cast the issue as a “chicken or the egg” question in the sense that the demand for zero emission must be made in order for the market to react to consumers. He called for the board to be bold in pushing for its freeways to be cleaner going forward.
“The meat of the matter is getting to zero emissions,” Garcetti said. “There’s nothing that stops us a year from now or two years from now from saying this will be the first freeway we do it on. If it never is widened, great. Let’s do it on what exists there today.”
[Editors note: The original version of this story stated that the Metro board’s vote would expand the 710 freeway. It could allow for it in the future but would require board approval.]