In the state legislature’s annual purge of pending legislation Aug. 30, two bills related to the future of the SR-710 corridor were approved. Each takes a different approach to preventing the construction of a freeway or tunnel in the so called 710-North “gap” between I-10 in Alhambra and I-210 in Pasadena. Sen. Anthony Portantino’s SB-7 won a 17-0 vote in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee while Chris Holden’s AB-29 bill got a 5-2 do-pass vote in Senate Appropriations. If both survive final floor votes in their respective chambers-of-origin before Sept. 13, the Governor will have 30 days to decide whether to sign them.
Meantime the Federal Highway Administration has authorized publication of a notice in the Sept. 3 Federal Register of the Aug. 6, 2019 record of decision (ROD) that formalized last November’s federal environmental review decision to forgo a freeway or tunnel and to rely instead on a transportation system management/transportation demand management (TSM/TDM) solution to reduce congestion in the 710 North study area. FHWA’s authorization is a critical milestone because the Sept. 3 publication formally begins the 150-day statute of limitations for legal challenges.
SB-7 states that Caltrans “shall not implement a freeway tunnel or surface freeway or expressway for Route 710 between Route 10 and Rout 210.” Although the ROD formally selected the TSM/TDM option, the legislation is regarded as a critical backstop because the corridor remains a part of the state’s freeway and expressway plan.
That’s where Holden’s bill comes in. AB-29 takes the additional step of declaring that while Route 710 is part of the freeway and expressway system, it extends only along the existing stretches from Route 47 to Route 1 and from Route 1 to Route 10, thereby eliminating any future possibility of a freeway tunnel between 10 and 210.
“The legislation will close potential loopholes in both Caltrans’ Final Environmental Impact Report and the 2017 Los Angeles Metro motion that drops the tunnel concept for strictly financial reasons,” Holden’s office said.
It was the third time Holden sought to get the bill through and required some last-minute jockeying that required him to agree to delay the effective date of the provision until January 1, 2024. That was done to ensure the bill “won’t inadvertently interfere with the local process for identifying and implementing projects in the area,” his office said. “We needed to find a way to change the Highway Code without complicating the existing process.”
Prior to its passage, Holden’s bill was scrubbed of provisions aimed at ensuring Caltrans and Metro would work directly with South Pasadena, Pasadena and Alhambra on the terms for agreements relating to the disposal of Caltrans property around the northern and southern “stubs” of the abandoned freeway; to give those cities the right of first refusal to purchase Caltrans property in the corridor; and to receive land relinquished by the state. The provisions were removed to win the vote of Sen. Susan Rubio, who was concerned they did not give enough representation to other cities in her district such as Monterey Park and Rosemead.
Portantino’s bill also helps the non-profit tenants in the 710 corridor to purchase their properties at prices much lower than otherwise, a provision designed to aid facilities such as Ronald McDonald House, Arlington Garden, Cottage Nursery and Sequoia School.
The State Department of Finance opposed this provision because Caltrans estimated it would force the state to forgo tens of millions of dollars in sales revenue that could otherwise go to defray state debt.
Finance also wanted to preserve the state’s future ability to consider a freeway in the corridor.
Multiple representatives from the non-profits traveled to Sacramento several times to offer testimony in support of SB 7. The bill also prevents Caltrans from raising the rent on low-income tenants in Caltrans-owned homes in the corridor.
During the Aug. 20 meeting of South Pasadena’s Freeway and Transportation Commission (FTC), City Councilman Richard Schneider reported that Portantino told him “he has the agreement of Sacramento officials to put [SB-7] through.” suggesting that any opposition from agencies such as Finance or Caltrans will not be an obstacle.
“Since SB 7 is a comprehensive bill dealing with many aspects of the 710 corridor,” Portantino’s office told the South Pasadenan News, “multiple state agencies were involved to hash out the final negotiated language. Given that the Senator and his policy staff worked closely with multiple people in the Administration on the final language of SB 7, he is optimistic the bill will garner a signature. [Pasadena] Mayor Terry Tornek was also consulted and offered significant input and help” to the Senator.
FTC commissioner Bill Sherman said with respect to Caltrans’ environmental review and the ROD, “the fact that [Caltrans District 7 director John] Bulinski strongly did not want to touch the stubs means they want to keep the possibility of a tunnel alive.” Others on the commission agreed.
The city of South Pasadena has asked an attorney to submit a proposal under which the attorney would review Caltrans’ 41-page ROD and make a recommendation on what if any legal action the city could take.
“Overall, we wish there was some more definitive language [in the ROD] saying that the freeway alternative is no longer on the table” FTC vice chair Scott Kuhn told the South Pasadenan News. “But there is language saying if they were ever to try to do it again, they’d have to do additional environmental review.”
Some FTC members are cool to the idea of recommending a legal challenge, but Kuhn said they would withhold judgement pending the legal review, which the city has not yet authorized. Another possibility is to simply have the lawyer draft a letter “memorializing our understanding that the freeway is not being approved and if they ever attempt to do a tunnel, they have to start with a new environmental impact report/environmental impact statement.
“We’re just concerned because we don’t trust them,” Kuhn said. Caltrans could try to pull some sort of “bait and switch” sooner or under a new administration. “Who knows what could happen in the future? That is the fear and we just want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
FTC Chair Joanne Nuckols told the South Pasadenan News that far from clarifying matters, passage of the 710 bills makes it “even more important for the city to get involved,” because the state-owned homes are not being sold fast enough, “tenants are getting screwed,” and the wording of the legislation is confusing, which shows that “Caltrans doesn’t know what they are doing or the proper designations for the stubs and extension.”
But in the meantime, parties were celebrating bills’ passage.
“I am very grateful to the Brown and Newsom Administrations for helping to define this plan and for negotiating the final bill amendments to make it happen,” Portantino said in a press release. “During every step of this journey, everyone did what they promised to do. When SB 7 is signed by the Governor, generations who have been fighting this freeway can rest in peace knowing that they made this day happen and that the freeway will never get completed.”
“We are extremely grateful to our Senator for putting the final nail in the 710 tunnel’s coffin,” said Claire Bogaard of the No 710 Action Committee. “He has been by our side for two decades; he kept our group calm over these last three years, and he followed through on his promise to have a legislative solution to compliment Metro’s action and the certified EIR. When SB 7 is signed we can all finally sigh in relief.”
The bill was the last step in a plan Portantino orchestrated in December 2016 whereby Metro acted first to support the TSM/TDM alternative followed by Caltrans’ certification of the environmental review and then a bill to deal with any outstanding issues, such as the disposition of freeway stubs and the handling of state-owned land and property in the corridor. “There may be additional clean up needed next year and Senator Portantino is committed to working on [that],” his office said.