A Southern California Test of Obama Promises

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The president elect has promised change, we all know that. He’s promised to get beyond old disputes and divides. And he’s pledged to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and stimulate the economy. That all sounds great, but I’ll believe these promises when I see them. And there’s a perfect place for Southern Californians to test whether Obama means any of this.

It’s called the 710- aka the Long Beach Freeway.

For a half-century, the 710 has been unfinished. It was supposed to go all the way from the Port of Long Beach up to Pasadena, where it would connect to the 210 Freeway, allowing drivers and truckers to skirt downtown LA on their way northwest (to the San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita, the Antelope Valley or even the Central Valley). But the highway stops 6 miles short of the 210 in Pasadena, dumping drivers onto the surface streets of Alhambra. Why? The power of one very well organized special interest: the residents and city fathers of South Pasadena.

For decades, South Pasadena has blocked this last bit of the interstate highway system with legal and other appeals. South Pasadenans know that the freeway would go through the center of their town, making it a much louder, less pleasant place. Of course, their actions have made other cities in the region louder, less pleasant places. The people of nearby Alhambra and Pasadena (disclosure: Pasadena’s my hometown) have made clear they want the freeway to no avail.

This is a classic case of the needs of the few frustrating the needs of the many. The 710 is the main transportation artery out of America’s largest port, the Port of Long Beach. It’d be a big boost for commerce if the freeway didn’t abruptly end before its destination. Truckers are instead forced onto other freeways, clogging traffic – and slowing the business and personal lives of others. And with the country requiring an economic boost, there’s no better time than right now to get construction started. This isn’t a bridge to nowhere-it’s a vital transportation link in the middle of a metropolitan area. And you want to talk shovel-ready? The 710 has been waiting for shovels to finish it for 50 years.

Coverage of the dispute focuses on the decision-making of state transportation officials, and the role of local bond money in paying for it. But this is fundamentally a federal issue, and Obama has a role to play in forcing this project forward. In 2003, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the 710’s route, thus removing federal pressure to build the project. The Obama administration needs to go back and get that same route re-approved, immediately. Ultimately, it may be that South Pasadena can be saved by building this extension with a tunnel, not an above-ground freeway. But without the leverage of strong federal support for finishing the 710, nothing will ever happen.

It’s time for change, for an end to this long-running dispute, and for some freeway construction we can believe in.

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