ALHAMBRA — From all four directions, cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles converged on the intersection of Valley Boulevard and Fremont Avenue, just down the road from where the Long Beach Freeway ends.
It was a weekday evening rush hour and Public Works Director Terry James threaded his city-issue Chevrolet sedan through traffic.
With him were Alhambra City Manager Kevin Murphy and Mayor Michael Blanco, making a spot-check of just how thick the traffic gets these days at the worst intersection in their continually growing city of 73,500 residents.
James signaled to turn left, but had to wait in a blocks-long queue. The left-arrow signal turned green. Traffic crept along slowly. James didn't make it through.
The cycle of lights repeated. Traffic crept along slowly. James didn't make it through again, but he did slide into one of the two left-turn lanes. More waiting. Then came the third change of lights, and finally he turned and headed north, toward South Pasadena.
"We certainly have a great deal of respect for the historic properties in South Pasadena," Murphy said. "But while the quality of South Pasadena's life improves, ours goes to hell. Our city is just as valuable as theirs. We have to have a freeway through South Pasadena."
Blanco was equally emphatic. "After 30 years, somebody's got to put their foot down and say: 'Nonsense!' to the people in South Pasadena who don't want the freeway. They're continuing to delay. And delays add costs."
Earlier in the afternoon, at Blanco's house, near where the San Bernardino and Long Beach freeways meet, the three officials talked about what they consider the most vital issue for their city.
"Look at the gap. It's obvious," Murphy said, pointing to one of the maps he had spread on a table in Blanco's family room. The intricate freeway map indicated the missing 6.2 miles of the Long Beach Freeway with a dotted line. It's what transportation planners call the final link in the Los Angeles County freeway system.
"I tell people from West Covina: 'Imagine what it would be like if we shut down the San Bernardino Freeway for 6.2 miles. What would you do then?' " Blanco said.
With a shudder, Murphy quoted Caltrans statistics for Alhambra traffic as a way to explain the impact of drivers, "who are like mice in a maze trying to find the quickest way out" on their journeys between Pasadena's freeways and the Long Beach and San Bernardino freeways.
Because of the gap, he said, the side streets of Monterey Park, South Pasadena, Pasadena, East Los Angeles, San Gabriel, San Marino, Rosemead, El Monte, and the Los Angeles communities of El Sereno and East Los Angeles fill with cross-county traffic.
Murphy cited these figures: On Atlantic Boulevard south of Huntington Drive, 27,000 vehicles pass daily. Without the freeway, by 2000, the number will grow to 73,000--24,000 more than with the freeway.
Just as frightening, he said, are the prospects for Los Robles Avenue in San Marino and Pasadena. The count now is 19,000 daily. Without the freeway, in 11 years it will be 56,000--nearly 20,000 more than with it.
"What everybody is missing in the argument against the freeway," Murphy said, "is the increasing traffic of the future," when the region is expected to have millions more residents. Blanco and James joined in, offering their own counterpoints to arguments against the freeway.
Murphy said he doesn't have great sympathy for some of those who live in the 1,426 houses in the roadway's proposed path.
Nearly 500 families, he pointed out, rent houses owned by the state Department of Transportation. Caltrans bought the properties in the mid-1960s before a court injunction stopped any further purchases. Among those properties are architecturally significant ones designed by Rudolf Schindler, and Charles and Henry Greene. "The renters knew the freeway might come through," Murphy said.
Blanco, as James drove him and Murphy around nearby side streets, said his own neighborhood has begun to suffer. "This is freeway traffic," Blanco said, pointing to a string of cars that apparently had just taken the next-to-the-last northbound exit off the Long Beach Freeway and were wending their way near Blanco's house on El Paseo.
"This has happened in the last two years," Murphy said. "Drivers are just finding more and more ways to avoid Valley Boulevard."
People in South Pasadena sometimes tell Murphy that one solution to Alhambra's traffic problem would be to add lanes to city streets. "Even if we added a lane on every major street, it wouldn't do any good," he said. "Those lanes would dead-end, anyway, when they came to South Pasadena and San Marino.
"I'm a stubborn person. This is my top priority. We're going to get this freeway. And I'm convinced that the people in South Pasadena, as the traffic increases in their neighborhoods, on the side streets and in front of their businesses, are going to say they've had enough, are going to say: 'Let's have a freeway.' "
NEXT STEP The environmental report on the Long Beach Freeway extension could be turned over to the California Transportation Commission by November. By December or January, Caltrans hopes the commission will hold a public hearing on the freeway plans.