In a move that could further delay the Long Beach (710) Freeway extension, federal highway officials are re-evaluating the highway's 3-year-old environmental impact report, which they must approve before the project can go forward.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, who have expressed concerns about the March, 1992, assessment, said they support the Federal Highway Administration's decision to re-examine the environmental impact statement. EPA officials said the report has some shortcomings and needs to be updated to meet current regulations, as well as to review new developments.
"Many new issues are not specifically addressed" in the 1992 report, said David Tomosovic of the EPA's office of federal affairs, which recently reviewed the extension's assessment.
Federal highway officials said regulations require them to re-evaluate any environmental reports 3 or more years old. That work will delay a decision on the project for at least three months. The delay could be much longer if the evaluation finds that a supplementary impact report is needed, officials said.
"We like to make sure we're not approving something that doesn't comply with all the latest regulations," said Jeffrey R. Brooks, director of program development for the highway administration.
The project's fate has largely rested with Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater since September, 1994, when the California Transportation Commission gave final state approval to the 6.2-mile route through Los Angeles, Alhambra, South Pasadena and Pasadena.
EPA officials said in a recent letter to the highway administration that they have identified a number of gaps in the current environmental assessment. Those include:
* Whether the project conforms to new Clean Air Act requirements, especially involving potentially harmful airborne particulates.
* Whether it complies with a 1994 presidential order requiring a determination of possible adverse or disproportionate impacts on ethnic minorities and low-income families.
* A lack of a review of South Pasadena's 1993 alternative plan calling for improvements to local streets and public transportation instead of building the extension.
"What we're saying is when you and Caltrans do a re-evaluation, please bear these things in mind because they should be addressed before the project is approved," wrote EPA's Tomosovic.
Freeway proponents, including Caltrans and Alhambra--where much of the potential freeway traffic now flows--downplayed the significance of the federal action and EPA comments. But South Pasadena and other freeway opponents said it would set the project back months, if not years, and some claimed it was the beginning of the end for the $670-million highway.
Kenneth C. Farfsing, city manager of South Pasadena, said he is certain the re-evaluation will lead to a supplemental report.
"We know the project is going nowhere," Farfsing said. "It is just a matter of time before the other side wakes up."
But Caltrans officials, who are working on the re-evaluation, dismissed the required changes as minimal, saying they have done their own continuous updates in reaction to new regulations and see no need for a supplemental assessment.
"There are changes, but if you're having trouble with your car and you go in and they say you need a new tire, you don't buy a new car," said Ron Kosinski, Caltrans interim deputy district director for the Los Angeles region.
The 1992 assessment is the fourth since the first study in 1973. Freeway opponents say the EPA's letter highlights problems they have complained about, especially the air-pollution requirements. In addition, they say the 1994 executive order on minority and low-income communities is relevant because about 600 homes in the largely low-income Latino El Sereno area of Los Angeles would be bulldozed for the extension.