I-710 and #MeToo

Last night, I went to the opening of “710”, an exhibition described as:

An exhibition considering the timeline, the geography, and the politics of the 710 interstate freeway and its incomplete five-mile northern extension — an invisible line that marks the longest running development dispute in American history. Covering 23 miles and over 60 years of local, state, and federal planning, the exhibition looks at our ever-changing relationship to the freeways and the matrix of transportation, industry, environment, and neighborhood power that it has come to represent.

For many residents of the San Gabriel Valley, the 710 is the freeway that will never be built. The five mile gap between Valley Boulevard in the south and West California Boulevard in the north marks the battle lines of an intergenerational conflict over the very meaning of “development”. For the California Department of Transportation, the 710 is the freeway that is always about to be completed. One more feasibility study, one more environmental impact report, one more funding cycle or election away… always just on the horizon of final connection, of “closing the gap”. In 2018, with the overland freeway proposal dead and the tunnel alternative currently de-funded, we look back on a struggle that has spanned the entire freeway era in America, from modernist ideal to paleotechnic dinosaur.

I was at the exhibit because some of my source materials for California Highways were on loan to it. It was held in one of the houses near the 710 northern stub (near the “fork in the road“). On the way home, it got me thinking. First, that I need to add some material on the highway pages covering the pre-2000 period of the gap completion fight (this will be done in the June updates to the site). Second — and the reason for this post — it got me thinking about the arguments both for and against the highway. The argument against the gap completion is clear: the impact on the local communities, the destruction of beautiful and historic homes, the impact on air quality and traffic in the communities, the visual blight. But (and this wasn’t heavy in the exhibition), what is the argument for? Primarily, one would think it is thru truck traffic (and even that might be limited — some of the alternatives wouldn’t allow thru trucks on the gap segment). It is completion of a line on a map. But it doesn’t benefit the local community except for a few minutes of time. In this day and age — and much as fellow roadgeeks might dislike me for saying it — there’s no strong reason to complete the route, other than traffic flow. How does one balance larger congestion relief with devastating impacts on the communities traversed — especially in an era on increased sensitivity.

This, in turn, got me thinking of how Caltrans built freeways in the 1950s, and how attitudes have changed. In many many ways, it is like the #metoo movement as a reflection of how societal attitudes have changed, and how what was once acceptable is not anymore.

Consider: In the heyday of freeway building, the need for “traffic privilege” overrode everything. We built where there was no road. We widened and “expresswayed” and “freeway-tized” existing roads. We cut through the hearts of communities, poor or rich, we didn’t care. The rights of the roadbuilder were supreme. In a paternalistic and colonial sense, the freeways were built “because they were good for you”. Close your eyes and think of the empire.

But we’ve learned quite a bit — and become more sensitive. We are still building new freeways, but often they are in areas where there is nothing now, and only the environment to complain (think about the High Desert Corridor as an example). When freeways are built through communities, often the past of least resistance — meaning the path of redevelopment — is taken. Translation: Build through the lower income communities that can’t afford to protest and fight back. Again, examples of this are clear in the distant and recent past: Building I-5 through Boyle Heights. Building the Century Freeway through Inglewood and South LA. The proposal to widen I-710 through the working class communities south of I-10 (although that is being fought). There is the increasing sense, however, that this is wrong. We’re widening the freeway, but for what end. Are there other solutions possible?

Then there are the wealthier communities: the ones that can afford to protest. Beverly Hills. Hollywood. Pasadena. South Pasadena. They make us realize that quite a bit will be lost in our quest to save a few minutes. They make us realize that what was once acceptable may not have been the right answer.

In the case of the 710, of course, this was a problem of Caltrans’ making. Caltrans policy in the 1950s and 1960s was to build the hardest parts first, and then connect them: meaning they built the interchanges and then the roads to connect them. In the case of the 710, the location of 134/210/710 interchange and the terminus N of I-10 at Valley Blvd created the problem, for it had to connect one unchangeable point with another unchangeable point. That created the Meridian Alignment and almost guaranteed the battle. If Caltrans had chosen to not build the stub portions of the interchange, they would have had the flexibility to pick any point along the 210 as the end of the 710, and to pick other points along the 10, and could likely have limited the construction to business districts, and widening of an existing road vs. creation of a new route. Caltrans, essentially, boxed themselves into a corner.

As a PS: For the argument about the freight traffic from the port, which was the principal reason that Long Beach built what became the 710 in the first place, and is the primary freight traffic on the 710: there is an easy answer. Rail. Find a distribution point out of the city, and build a dedicated rail line from the Port to that distribution center. Rail takes much less right of way, does not require interchanges, and can have much higher density of containers than trucks ever can. It can also use non-polluting engines. Use rail to bring things to the out-of-city distribution point, and then run trucks from there to other points.