Thursday, January 20, 2005

MTA Panel OKs Proposal to Expand 710 Freeway
The $4.5-billion plan would widen the route and add four elevated truck-only lanes.
But finding the funding is a major obstacle.
By Caitlin Liu - Times Staff Writer

A key Metropolitan Transportation Authority committee approved a $4.5-billion plan Wednesday to expand the 710 Freeway — including the construction of four elevated truck-only lanes — to help ease the rapid growth of container traffic from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports throughout the region.

Although the plan is expected to receive full board approval at next week's meeting, a bigger hurdle lies ahead: finding the money to implement it.

The MTA has a budget deficit approaching $50 million. The state government, stuck in a fiscal crisis, has frozen all funding for new freeway and transit projects. Planning and construction for projects already underway are being delayed across California because of a shortage of funds.

"I don't have a clue where the $4 billion is going to come from," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA director, expressing concerns that the plan could, at a later time, drain money from other MTA projects currently on hold.

But others were eager to move the project forward, citing the problems and congestion plaguing the 18-mile corridor from the nation's largest port complex to the rail yards of Commerce and East Los Angeles.

"At some point in time, this is a project that needs to be done," said Mayor James K. Hahn, also an MTA director.

The funding could come from a variety of sources, including the federal government, truck-lane tolls and container fees, planners said. But even if financing became available, it would be at least a decade before groundbreaking could begin because of the time required for environmental reviews, engineering and design.

The MTA plan calls for building two exclusive truck lanes, with elevated portions, in each direction between the ports and the rail yards to the north.

Up to two regular lanes would be added in each direction, so the corridor — most of which has either three or four lanes in each direction — would have 10 car lanes in all. Thirteen interchanges would be reconfigured.

The plan is the result of a four-year effort.

Port officials, business leaders and community groups agree that an overhaul is long overdue for the 1950s-era route, which lacks many of the safety and design features of more modern freeways, such as longer acceleration lanes.

"It's really the nation's freeway; 15% of everything that comes into this country travels that freeway," said Geraldine Knatz, managing director of the Port of Long Beach.

Currently, about 40,000 big-rigs drive to and from the port complex every day, Knatz said.

By 2020, truck traffic is expected to exceed 90,000 trips a day.

But such traffic has already become so dense on the Long Beach Freeway near the ports that 18-wheelers sometimes seem more like trains as they chug, one after another, down the same lane.

The California Highway Patrol considers the freeway to be one of the worst in Los Angeles County because of its high number of accidents, often involving trucks.

People who live near the freeway say they are particularly concerned about so many diesel trucks spewing fumes into their neighborhoods, contributing to poor air quality.

"The health issues are very, very serious for us," said Long Beach Councilwoman Nancy Ramos. "Our children are suffering from asthma."

Ramos, along with several leaders of community, public health and environmental groups told the MTA's planning committee Wednesday that they were concerned it did not do enough to limit air pollution.

An earlier freeway widening plan that could have led to the demolition of nearly 800 homes and businesses was killed in May 2003 by the MTA board after the proposal encountered staunch community opposition.

The current plan would build truck lanes mostly within an 80-feet-wide utility corridor, requiring the removal of five residential buildings and 61 commercial or industrial structures.

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