The South Pasadena City Council raised eyebrows Wednesday Dec. 16 when, against the express recommendation of its five transportation commissioners, it unanimously approved a revised scope and $200,000 appropriation for a study of alternatives to the much anticipated but possibly endangered SR 110 and Fair Oaks Ave interchange revision.
The action may aggravate sensitive relations between the Council and its many commissions, improvement of which was a theme in recent successful City Council campaigns.
The request came in an email sent to Councilmembers Wednesday morning by Larry Abelson, vice chair of the city’s Mobility and Transportation Infrastructure Commission. City Manager Sean Joyce and Public Works Director Shahid Abbas were also copied. He reported that during a special meeting the night before, MTIC commissioners unanimously agreed to ask Councilmembers to postpone approval of the revised scope.
Thursday, Abelson told the South Pasadenan News he was “very disappointed” no Council members sought to contact MTIC commissioners before voting Wednesday night.
“Instead, staff pushed forward and convinced the Council to reject the MTIC’s request for a postponement. My takeaway was that the Council did not respect or value, and too easily dismissed, the input of our commission whose members have spent immeasurably more time and effort studying these important mobility issues than they and that, as a result, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past (e.g. the Fair Oaks Avenue bulbouts). Hopefully, this error will be rectified.”
MTIC Commissioner Michelle Hammond was also “disappointed” no Councilmembers thought to contact commissioners before voting. With the departure of City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe, “we were hopeful relations between city staff and the commissions would change. There have been some promising steps toward this, but this seems like a step backward.”
The interchange project, including a modified southbound entrance now called the “loop ramp” and widening the northbound exit, is the signature project the city has considered for Measure R funds Metro reallocated after the city’s historic success in defeating the 710 freeway extension.
The city has been discussing the revisions for decades, though talks intensified recently (click here for info) after Metro programmed $70 million for the work. Considerable back and forth over the project’s scope, or whether it is even feasible, has taken place between city staff, Metro and Caltrans, as well as with MTIC and the City of Pasadena.
Metro, Caltrans, and city staff want to expand the scope to include new configurations and improvements throughout the Fair Oaks Ave. corridor.
During MTIC’s Dec. 15 meeting, Commissioner Kim Hughes observed there are three new members on the City Council who may not have the “full history” of the loop ramp so postponement would offer them time to get up to speed. Abelson said MTIC commissioners themselves remain uncertain over the scope of the work. “If we don’t fully understand what’s going to be reviewed, the City Council will be less so.” Commissioner John Fisher noted MTIC is ramping up to engage an on-call design consultant who it wanted to involve in the scope review.
A designated City Council liaison and the relevant department head normally attend commission meetings. But no one’s been appointed to replace previous MTIC liaison Robert Schnedier, whose Council term expired Dec. 2. And while some Public Works staff were present for the MTIC meeting, Director Abbas was not. A staff member promised to brief Abbas about the commission’s concerns, but Abelson said he never heard from the director.
In the letter, Abelson said MTIC supports a scope revision but ticked off five reasons to delay approval. Metro is currently revising criteria for Measure R projects; Caltrans has imposed new conditions that require added design work; the pandemic’s impact on traffic patterns must be waited out; the full $800,000 cost of the study may be inflated; and more review must be done to ensure the scope includes appropriate traffic flow and pattern impacts on other streets such as Meridian and Fremont.
Commissioners said they’d been assured by staff there was no imminent deadline or risk of lost funding at stake by a short delay. But during the Council session, they said, Abbas made it seem the funds were at risk.
Abbas told the Council he’d discussed the matter in detail with City Manager Joyce and they’d agreed it was in the city’s “best interest to move forward with rescoping.” Caltrans recently raised over a dozen serious technical issues concerning constructibility of the loop ramp. “This is alarming,” Abbas said. “At the end of the day, Caltrans may not allow us to construct the loop ramp…and if that be the case then we risk losing tens of millions of dollars.”
Commissioners were also miffed that though they’d met the night before, it wasn’t until Joyce’s presentation during Wednesday’s Council session that they learned Public Works had won a $6 million grant from Metro for a Fremont Ave. Complete Street project. Moreover, Abelson said it “remains far from clear what traffic measures will be implemented on that street.”
Of the three members sitting for their first full Council meeting, only Council Member Jon Primuth offered a comment on the MTIC letter. He said the scope as written seemed “broad enough to encompass what I think [are] MTIC’s concerns.”
“You are absolutely right,” Abbas assured him. During the campaign, Primuth said the city needed a “healthy governing culture.” Had there been one, he said in one forum, the city “would have collaborated effectively with our commissioners and they wouldn’t feel sidelined.”
New Council Member Jack Donovan, who said he ran in part because “commission input was ignored,” offered no comment. Nor did new Council Member Evelyn Zneimer.
All three joined the unanimous vote against postponement.