The plan to widen the 710 Freeway will likely take another step forward when the full Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board (Metro) votes Thursday morning.
While discussions of traffic congestion and air quality have dominated public meetings thus far, displacement looms large for hundreds of homes and businesses whose properties lie in the path of the updated freeway’s blueprint.
According to documents included in the project’s environmental impact report some 109 residential properties are set to be displaced under the $6 billion motion currently being considered by Metro, referred to as alternative 5c. Seventeen of those residences and dozens of non-residential properties in Long Beach are currently on the list of properties included in the project’s environmental documents.
A more expensive plan, alternative 7, would have installed four lanes of low emission truck traffic along the 19-mile section of the freeway that stretches from Long Beach to East Los Angeles at a cost of $10 billion, but also would have resulted in more residential and business displacements as well as the displacement of the Long Beach Multi-Service Center.
Alternative one, the no-build option, like alternative 7, is not under consideration. Once approved the project is expected to take about 40 years to complete.
Advocates have pushed for amendments to whichever plan that will eventually be approved by Metro and CalTrans to include no displacement as well as local hiring and zero-emissions policies. At a Metro committee meeting earlier this month, County Supervisor Janice Hahn proposed a zero-emission only lane with an amendment for those lanes to include electric charging capabilities.
This week, County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who also sits on the Metro board, introduced an amendment that would put an emphasis on completing portions of the project that have “immediate and significant” impacts on air quality, road safety and mobility as well as limiting or eliminating displacement of residences or businesses.
The motion also calls for the development of a local hiring program and future analysis of project construction, especially when it comes to the potential displacement of homes. A release from Solis’ office Wednesday morning said that if the project is abandoned none of the air quality, congestion or safety issues would be resolved and that the project would lead to investments in surrounding communities in the form of added bike paths, road repairs and in some instances, increased park space.
“In order to enhance safety of commuters and our residents, address traffic flow concerns, and improve the air quality in the communities along the corridor, I introduced Motion 5.2 because I believe Motion 5.2 places a strong emphasis on delivering incremental benefits over time, while minimizing impacts to local communities,” Solis said in the statement.
Mayor Robert Garcia, who co-authored the motion, said he would push for those improvements, including the construction of the new Shoemaker Bridge and expansion of Cesar Chavez Park, to happen in Long Beach sooner rather than later while noting that about 90 percent of the project, if approved, would occur in the current footprint of the 710 freeway.
“I know any additional widening won’t eliminate congestion, but it will improve safety for motorists who struggle on the 710 with trucks coming in and out of the ports,” Garcia said in the joint statement from Solis’ office. “The amended motion will move us toward a zero emissions port to protect the health of our communities and will provide hundreds of millions of dollars for significant improvements to neighborhoods along the 710.”
The project has been blasted by op-eds in local media for its proposed solution to alleviating traffic being the construction of more lanes for travel. A number of studies and policy briefs, including one cited by CalTrans in the past, have shown that creating new lanes can spark a condition called “induced demand.” Put shortly, build more lanes, more cars will fill them.
Susanne Browne, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, a member of the coalition fighting for changes to the projects, acknowledged the changes introduced to the plans, but said that the coalition still could not back a project that doesn’t push zero-emissions more boldly and a process that has seen many of the tweaks happen in the past few weeks with little transparency. Despite the motion, little has actually changed, Brown said.
“It’s just window dressing,” Browne said. “It’s putting lipstick on a pig.”
Browne’s concerns focus on the compensation that displaced persons will get if and when the time comes for the 710 project to absorb their properties. CalTrans must follow federal relocation assistance guidelines when acquiring properties which includes offering buyouts for a “comparable” home or rental assistance to offset increases in rent. The guidelines also provide for the displaced to be compensated for moving costs.
However, Browne said that money is quickly used up and wouldn’t account for higher property taxes for home owners or the possible permanent increase in rent, as rental assistance goes away after about 40 months.
She added that CalTrans officials in Sacramento have expressed to her office that undocumented persons would not be eligible for any of these benefits. CalTrans did not respond to a request for interview for this story.
Compensated or not, Browne said to remove any number of homes when the state is in the middle of a housing crisis just doesn’t add up.
“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Browne said. “In our coalition’s opinion they can design the freeway in any way they want and there’s no reason why CalTrans can’t hire engineers to design it in such a way that it doesn’t displace people.”
The displacements will affect communities up and down the 710. While only a handful could take place in Long Beach, the corridor that stretches from the port to East Los Angeles could see hundreds of people forced to move as the project progresses.
Ernesto Chaves, a senior director for Metro, said that the full impact of the project when it comes to displacement can’t be gauged as of yet because no project has been approved. With about $1 billion of the projected $6 billion in hand, Metro would only move forward with “Early Action” projects they can afford. Those projects are defined by Metro as pieces of the project that would bring immediate benefits to the freeway system, can link up immediately with the existing freeway, and for which the funding is already available.
Whether or not it’s appropriate to remove any amount of housing in the middle of a housing crisis is a question of values, Chaves said.
“Metro is a transportation agency and we’re trying to meet the purpose and needs of this particular project which is to address the transportation needs of the corridor and of course that has impacts on other things,” Chaves said. “In terms of whether that’s a good or a bad thing, that’s a values statement that I don’t want to get into. But it’s something the board is going to have to weigh.”
He did note that because of the lack of current funding, and the project likely not beginning construction until at least 2022, the bulldozers won’t be coming for anyone’s home or business in the immediate future. The project must first relocate utilities that are in the right-of-way which could take years, and then it must find funding to buy the properties from businesses and homeowners.
“When we’re in the environmental review process we don’t tell people we’re going to impact your property for sure, and this is the timeline, because in reality we really don’t know,” Chaves said. “If and when a project is approved and there’s actually funding to do the project then CalTrans, as they begin their final design processes, they begin noticing to the people that are going to be affected for sure.”
But the fact remains that some people may lose their homes or businesses and be forced to relocate if the project cannot be amended to spare their properties.
A version of the list of potentially affected properties has been in circulation since about 2012, with an updated version out since July 2017. Still, some residents have complained that a lack of outreach by Metro and CalTrans has resulted in many of the communities being unaware that the 710 project could result in them being removed from their neighborhoods.
Joe Kim’s family has owned the Wienerschnitzel restaurant on Imperial Highway in South Gate for nearly four decades. Kim said his 78-year-old father still goes to work, and was unaware of the potential for the family to lose the business until a few weeks ago. While Metro has advised him that displacement would be put off until other portions of the project are completed, the thought of losing the family business that his dying mother requested stay in the family has loomed large over his household since they learned they were on the list.
“We really don’t know where to begin,” Kim said. “We’ve just heard about this recently so we really haven’t been sleeping and we’re worried here. We haven’t really had a chance to think about what will happen if we lose the business.”
Jose Gonzalez lives in a two-bedroom apartment with three other people in the City of Commerce, one of the communities in line to be most affected by potential displacement. He said that his current rent is about $1,000 per month, and after looking through rental search engines, the closest comparable rent he could find was in Compton for a one-bedroom apartment.
Gonzalez works in Vernon, which is about a 3-mile drive from his current apartment. But he said that skyrocketing rents may force his family to look farther away, perhaps as far as Palmdale, which will increase his travel costs, something not covered under the relocation assistance guidelines. With Metro set to vote Thursday morning on the project, Gonzalez said there are still people on his block that have no clue what’s going on.
“You can go down my street and say ‘hey, do you support alternative 5c’ and my neighbors won’t know what you’re talking about,” Gonzalez said. “We haven’t been updated in years. We don’t get letters about meetings. The only way that word gets out around here is if East Yard comes to my neighborhood and does door knocking.”
Laura Cortez has been going door to door for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, another entity that’s part of the coalition pushing back against the project.
She said it’s not uncommon for people who are on the list of addresses included in the environmental impact report to have no idea that their homes could eventually be consumed by the 710’s new footprint. Cortez said that even if Metro and CalTrans have held hundreds of meetings over the course of the project’s planning, it means nothing if they haven’t listened to the community’s input.
Responding to Metro board member and Los Angeles City Council Member Mike Bonin’s comments made earlier this month regarding this project and how it could face backlash similar to the controversial land acquisitions made to build Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine, which saw a generation of hispanics spurn the Dodgers because of the forceful takeover of homes. Cortez said the community will not forget, adding that lawsuits could likely be a part of their strategy going forward.
“That’s definitely something we’re not going to let our representatives forget,” Cortez said. “On the Metro level, we’re definitely not going to forgive.”