The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors criticized the planned expansion of the southern end of the 710 Freeway Thursday but declined to stop pursuing certification of the project’s environmental documents that have come under scrutiny from state and federal transportation officials.
A motion by Director Hilda Solis sought to cease further work to advance the environmental documents while continuing early-action improvements that were part of the 710 project but the board instead voted to suspend work on the project’s environmental review while Metro tries to reimagine the project.
The Metro board in 2018 approved a $6 billion plan to widen a 19-mile stretch of the freeway that would have added a lane in both directions along the entire length of the freeway from Long Beach to East Los Angeles.
Solis said her constituents are advocating for a stop to the current plan because of its potential to increase pollution as well as displacing businesses and residents in the process.
“You can’t afford to expand freeways at the expense of people, gentrifying communities and allowing for more carbon to be spewed in areas that are already toxic hot spots,” Solis said.
Work around the plan had remained quiet for years after the board’s adoption of the expansion plan in March 2018 but earlier this year federal regulators sent a letter to Metro and Caltrans, the other lead agency working on the project, notifying them that widening the 710 could likely make air quality worse and put it in non-compliance with the Clean Air Act.
Criticism of highway projects negatively affecting communities fo color has been a focus of the Biden Administration and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg with both Biden and Buttigieg taking public stances on limiting harm inflicted on those communities from future highway projects.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency said in the letter that the project needed to complete a “hot-spot” analysis of particulates to move forward but opined that the results of such a study would likely prove that pollution would increase.
Since that letter became public the heads of Caltrans and Metro have questioned the project. Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin said the agency would put an “absolute pause on the project” in its current format because it didn’t align with the state’s current trajectory of transportation policy.
A Metro executive said he didn’t think there was a possibility of coming to a “reasonable resolution” with the EPA over its letter.
Metro Chief Executive Phillip Washington said earlier this month that he wanted to “reframe the conversation” and address the harms created by major highway construction.
Oh Thursday, Washington advocated for the early-action improvements to continue while Metro and Caltrans leaders met with state and federal transportation leaders to redefine the project with a focus on zero emissions, local hiring practices and eliminating displacement.
Those meetings could take place over the next few months, Washington said.
“If you have those principles as the governing body you’ll be able to create and come up with policies from a point of knowledge on this issue,” Washington told the board.
While the board was supportive of exploring ways to reduce harm that could come from the project others were reluctant to abandon the 20-year effort that has cost the agency $55 million to get to this point.
Director Janice Hahn, who represents Long Beach on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, helped walk back Solis’ original motion to cease work on the project, advocating for a pause while discussions take place to determine what could be fixed in the project before it’s potentially abandoned.
“To cease the work on this doesn’t solve the problem of these corridor cities who have been suffering from the burden of bearing the goods movement for the entire country,” Hahn said.
Hahn said she wanted to explore ways to reduce emissions, potentially without widening the freeway, by embedding technology in the freeway that allows trucks to recharge as they drive. She proposed the same thing in 2018 when the board approved the 710 project.
But the freeway “will always be a freeway,” Hahn said, and it will have trucks on it and how they operate on it needs to be addressed, she said.
“I’d have on-dock rail from here to eternity but that’s not happening and 50% of the cargo that comes in there will always be trucked,” Hahn said.
Laura Cortez, an organizer with East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, which has fought the project over its potential harmful impacts to communities along the 710 said that she believes the project is dead, even if the board didn’t acknowledge it Thursday.
“They expressed all the same sentiments that we’ve been saying for years but couldn’t commit to ‘cease,’” Cortez said Friday. “What we wanted was absolute language. One word does make a difference.”
Cortez said she still views this as a victory for the community and she’s hopeful that future meetings with Metro and Caltrans will result in a project that is more in line with community needs and wants.