Assemblywoman to propose banning freeway widening in underserved communities, including contingent 710 project

An assemblymember representing Los Angeles County cities said she plans to propose a bill that would ban the widening of freeways throughout California, including the contingent 710 Freeway project halted since March.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, said that she wants legislation that would “prohibit the state from funding or permitting highway projects in areas with high rates of pollution and poverty and where residents have suffered negative health effects from living near freeways,” the Los Angeles Times first reported on Sunday.

Fear over displacement has always been a subject of conversation for Garcia growing up in Bell Gardens, a predominately Latino city in the southeast region of the LA county that resides near the 710 Freeway.

“This is personal,” Garcia said in a phone interview on Monday.

Since the bill isn’t out yet, Garcia’s not sure if she thinks it will get enough support in the legislature. Garcia said her bill would prevent widening in poor and polluted communities that are impacted in negative ways.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, declined to comment on the bill’s concept for the time being. However, he did note “what the state does have is a plan to get cleaner and greener cars on the road.”

Caltrans, the state agency that’s handling the 710 freeway project along with Metro, did not immediately respond for comment.

In March, Metro and Caltrans halted the freeway widening project when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a letter that the project didn’t meet federal air quality standards and requested a pollution study. In response to the EPA’s decision and displacement concerns, the Metro Board in May directed Metro to suspend work on the environmental process and re-engage community members and collect renewed input on the project.

Metro and Caltrans then launched the 710 Task Force, a group of about 50 community, industry, public and private stakeholders. The task force is gathering renewed input from the community.

Garcia said “it sounds insulting” that the Metro and Caltrans still want to go forward with the 710 freeway expansion project even after a large number of residents and community stakeholders stood against it years ago.

She’s even cited studies published by The Times on how widening projects don’t work. Studies show freeway expansions might even make congestion worse.

Taylor Thomas, co-executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said that, in general, freeways shouldn’t be expanded anywhere, especially in working-class communities.

“Not expanding freeway is definitely something that should be codified in policy,” Thomas said.

In 2013, residents living along the 710 Freeway rallied behind EYCEJ’s proposed alternative, Community Alternative 7 or CA7, which proposed no freeway expansion, lane-widening or displacement. Instead, it had a lane dedicated for zero-emission freight and expanded public transit to promote less car use and local hiring.

Today, Thomas serves as a member of the 710 Task Force. She wants to stay involved in the renewed input process to ensure that there’s a clear strategy and plan to engage the community.

For her part, she wants to help “expand and create a robust community engagement process.”

Long Beach is a highly polluted city in LA County due to its proximity to the ports of Los Beach and Los Angeles, refineries and freeways. This year, congestion at the ports increased pollution in Long Beach, particularly on the Westside, home to many working-class, communities of color.

Garcia said she plans to introduce her bill next month.

“If you have an overburdened community that’s low-income, like the SELA [Southeast Los Angeles] along the 710, then the state should not be getting permits or funding for any of that widening,” Garcia said.

LA Metro board opts to pause pursuit of 710 Freeway widening project

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Crystal Niebla is the West Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of her grant-funded position with the Post. If you want to support Crystal's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at lbpost.com/support.
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