U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater got a firsthand look Wednesday at the level of emotion in South Pasadena over his department's plans to extend the Long Beach Freeway through the city, as more than 100 opponents rallied outside a downtown Los Angeles fund-raiser he attended.
The Union Station protest was a far cry from the quiet lobbying in Washington that has characterized the decades-long freeway fight of late, before Slater's department green-lighted the 6.2-mile project last month.
But the demonstration was anything but a typical downtown political protest. A real estate appraiser and a former FBI agent were among the largely gray-haired, business-suited throng, which chanted slogans such as "No 710! Slater is a traitor!" and waved placards, including some reading, "Communities not Concrete."
"We want Mr. Slater to see the people whose lives and community he is about to devastate," said Mary Ann Parada. "We're here to save our community."
"The 710 Freeway project is a $1.4-billion piece of pork for Caltrans that will waste taxpayers' money," said South Pasadena Mayor Paul Zee. "It will divert funds from badly needed bus and rail transit projects."
The rally, which occurred outside a fund-raiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), comes a month after federal authorities gave preliminary approval to the project, which would extend the freeway through El Sereno, South Pasadena and part of Pasadena. Transportation officials are scheduled to formally approve the project as early as next month.
The extension would connect the San Bernardino and Foothill freeways by running a concrete artery through the three communities, destroying 900 homes and uprooting 6,000 trees. Construction could begin by 2005.
Since the late 1960s, South Pasadena has been one of the project's most bitter opponents.
Slater and Boxer initially avoided a confrontation with the protesters by slipping into Union Station while the crowd waited outside. But when picketers learned the officials were at the restaurant in the station, they marched into the lobby.
Their spirited cries of "No 710!" echoed against the station's vaulted marble and drowned out conversation at the fund-raiser, which had to be moved to a patio. The protesters were joined by Los Angeles schoolchildren passing through the station who took up the chant.
In an interview, Slater said that transportation officials had taken protesters' concerns into account in their plans and that the freeway would not devastate the cities along the route.
"During the course of this process every effort was made to be as sensitive as possible to both environmental and community concerns," he said.
Slater also reiterated that the roadway will not be built unless the California Department of Transportation can meet federal requirements, such as building 80% of the extension below street level in El Sereno.
Boxer said she has mediated many disputes during her career in Congress, but that this battle--between South Pasadena and some of its neighbors, which are pushing the freeway--appears unsolvable.
"I have never seen so much animosity between one city and seven cities. I was trying to find common ground. I failed to do that," she said.
The protest didn't faze her. "I always encourage people to express themselves," she said. "It's the American way, and certainly the California way."