The resolve to complete the 710 Freeway — closing its 6.2-mile gap between Interstate 10 and the 210 Freeway in Pasadena — dates to 1959.
Had it been completed then, the extension would have cost $6 million. The estimated price now is $5.6 billion. What could account for such a staggering cost increase? Inflation accounts for less than a tenfold increase in construction costs. Nor has the proposal to build a tunnel rather than a surface link added substantially to the bottom line, because the cost of condemning urban real estate and the cost of digging just about cancel each other out.
Instead, the nearly thousand-fold increase in cost comes mainly from two factors: ever more demanding government requirements, and an element I like to call "the malarkey factor."
The 710 extension environmental impact review, for which discussions began in 2008, has satisfied no one. Environmentalists designed the process, yet they are the ones challenging its findings. Supporters of the extension don't like it because it has thus far added seven years and $41 million to this project. By the time it's over, that figure could reach $60 million. But that's nothing compared with the increases caused by the malarkey factor.
"We used to be a country that celebrated people who get things done," columnist George Will (among others) has opined. "Now we celebrate people who stop things from getting done." We've turned into a society that elevates naysayers to the level of builders and allows the needs of the many to be hijacked by the noise of the few. Public officials have given the same weight to the mindless schemes of 710 opponents as they have to facts that favor the public good.
In 1993, South Pasadena introduced with great fanfare a "multi-mode, low-build alternative" to the 710 extension. It claimed that a mix of surface street improvements would achieve much the same traffic reduction as completing the freeway.
This sounds crazy because it is. Caltrans and other related agencies studied this plan and found that it would actually make things worse. Yet then-Rep. James Rogan (R-Glendale) managed to secure $46 million for the discredited plan and nothing at all for an extension. For a decade, South Pasadena officials trumpeted their nonsensical low-build plan without the media or elected officials calling them on it.
In 2007, the 710 opponents came up with a new public works principle. They demanded that any study of the extension be "route neutral." That meant all feasible alternatives had to be explored, including options far from where the freeways end. Their champion was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), and studies were conducted of routes through Glendale and under the San Rafael neighborhood of Pasadena, stirring up wrath along these illogical lines. Not surprisingly, the original plan turned out to be the shortest and the cheapest option.
Then, in March, the anti-extensionists outdid themselves with their "Beyond the 710" plan. They suggested a grab bag of ideas that they claimed would serve much the same purpose as completing the freeway: a separated bike path; longer service hours for Metro's 762 bus line; using the proceeds from Caltrans property sales to buy transit passes for every student at Cal State L.A. and East Los Angeles College. Sad to say, the media covered this gibberish without challenging the tortured logic behind the notion that any of it could substitute for closing a gap in a freeway network.
Southern California transportation agencies have spent more than 50 years studying and restudying completion of this last link in the core Los Angeles County freeway grid. Study after study have shown that completion of the 710 would remove significant traffic from local neighborhoods in the west San Gabriel Valley and from other nearby freeways. The extension would both accommodate more travel and improve the level of service.
It's clear what we should do: Close the 710 gap. After all the costs are added up and compared, a 4.5-mile tunnel and less than
1.5 miles of surface construction is the best way to do it. After some short-term construction disturbance, it will preserve rather than divide South Pasadena, which was the long-ago goal of the anti-extensionists, while providing congestion relief between the South Bay and north L.A. County.
Decision-makers should quit studying the 710 and start building. Otherwise our children and grandchildren will muse over a long-ago time in 2015 when the freeway system could have been completed for a mere $5.6 billion.
James Elliott Moore II is director of the Transportation Engineering Program and vice dean for academic programs in USC's Viterbi School of Engineering.