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Variation Adds Wrinkle to Debate on Freeway

January 29, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH PASADENA — You need a score card to keep track of them. There were the Westerly Corridor, the Westerly Corridor with Double-Decking, the Westerly Corridor Plan B and a half dozen other Westerly variations. There was the Orange Grove Variation and there was the Meridian Corridor.

Now, officially, there is a Meridian Variation, bringing the total number of routes formally considered by the state Department of Transportation for the long-debated Long Beach Freeway extension to an even dozen.

Caltrans has unveiled more details about its new proposed route, which would jog two or three blocks to the west of the Meridian Corridor for a 1.4-mile stretch.

The 6.2-mile Meridian Corridor, which generally follows Meridian Avenue through the center of town, had been the state agency's first choice for completing the truncated Long Beach Freeway, connecting it with the Pasadena and Foothill freeways to the north. After complaints by civic leaders, however, federal officials ruled in 1984 that the route would flatten an unacceptably high number of historic buildings.

Hence, the variation. As described in an environmental impact statement prepared by state planners and now circulating through the community, the new route would reduce the number of historical structures affected from 102 to 37.

Critics of the variation, which Caltrans first proposed last spring, are not impressed. They're greeting it with the same distaste with which they've met the other Caltrans proposals. The variation, they say, would displace more homes, people and jobs than the Meridian Corridor, without significantly altering their principal objection to the corridor--that it would lay an ugly eight-lane trench through the middle of town.

"There's no credibility to anything that Caltrans says about it," fumed Mayor Lee Prentiss. "They've never seriously looked at any other alternative." City officials have long favored a westerly corridor for the freeway extension, avoiding the center of town by shifting the route to the western city limits.

Prentiss interpreted a referendum last fall, in which the voter's overwhelmingly gave the City Council the OK to continue opposing the freeway extension, as a rejection of any Meridian route, whether the original or the variation, and a tacit endorsement of the Westerly Corridor.

But Connie Baer, chairman of the city's transportation commission, said the vote may have been a sign of general frustration with the whole idea. Many more residents now support the "no-build" option--that is, leaving things as they stand now--rather than opting for one of the discussed routes, she said. "I couldn't give you a nose count," she said, "because Caltrans has worked overtime to keep the Westerly route from working. But it's growing."

In the meantime, Congress may be on the verge of approving legislation that would provide a greater share of federal matching funds for projects like the freeway extension, if it is ever approved. The House last week approved a five-year $91.6-billion highway bill, including a provision allowing states to place specified highway projects in the category of "priority primary route." Projects in that category qualify for a 95% share of federal funding.

The Long Beach Freeway extension, which has been mentioned specifically by the House Public Works Committee as qualifying for the new designation, is now considered an "urban systems" project, qualifying only for 86% federal funding.

Cost Estimates Given

Caltrans estimates the total cost of the Meridian Variation, both for right-of-way expenses and construction, at $425.5 million. The original Meridian Corridor would cost $429.2 million.

The House legislation also includes a provision permitting states to transfer 20% of their interstate reconstruction money to funds for primary routes. "It significantly increases the pot for primary routes," said Paul Schlesinger, a staff member of the House surface transportation subcommittee. "It could have a great effect on the availability of funds for the Long Beach Freeway extension."

Caltrans' arguments for building the extension focus on the effects of north-south traffic on city streets because of the gap in the freeway system. The extension would reduce street traffic by 20% to 50%, the Caltrans report says. It would reduce the number of accidents by 1,205 a year and the number of traffic deaths by nine. Caltrans estimates that 140,000 vehicles a day would use the extension, about half of them diverted from north-south streets in the corridor.

From the present end of the Long Beach Freeway in Alhambra to Bank Street in South Pasadena, the Meridian Variation is virtually the same as the Meridian Corridor. It would slice through El Sereno and drift eastward through the southern part of South Pasadena.

Swing West Again

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