WASHINGTON — Federal highway officials Friday said they are weeks away from deciding whether to approve the extension of the Long Beach Freeway, a move that would end more than 30 years of attempts to close the last gap in the Los Angeles freeway system.
The Federal Highway Administration presented a draft proposal for the 6.2-mile route through Los Angeles, South Pasadena and Pasadena to about 40 Southern California officials, members of the state's congressional delegation and citizen activists Friday in Washington.
Acting deputy administrator Anthony R. Kane said the agency will give the local governments one week to comment on the proposal, and will issue a final decision shortly thereafter.
Kane acknowledged that the agency has been leaning toward approving the extension, but added: "That does not mean we have made the decision."
Local backers of the extension were "very optimistic," said Alhambra City Manager Julio Fuentes.
Pasadena Councilwoman Ann-Marie Villicana, a freeway supporter, called the meeting "a very good dialogue. I would like to see a decision made to eliminate the uncertainty, which has been going on for 30 years," she said.
But officials from South Pasadena, the only local city to oppose the freeway extension under any circumstances, held their ground Friday. "The debate is not over," South Pasadena Mayor Paul Zee said after the meeting. The city, he added, "will use every means necessary" to fight the project.
If the project is cleared by the agency, the California Department of Transportation will seek federal and state funding for the roadway, and must purchase whatever private property remains in its path.
Caltrans officials hope to begin construction of the extension, which will link the San Bernardino and Foothill freeways, in 2005, according to Caltrans chief environmental planner Ron Kosinski.
Caltrans, which owns about half the properties needed for the extension right-of-way, still needs to purchase more than 400 properties.
The project could be completed in eight or nine years and is expected to cost $1.4 billion, Kosinski said.
Peter Hathaway, deputy director of the California Transportation Commission, said the project could be paid for out of $4.3 billion in state and federal transportation funds available to California between now and 2005.
The freeway extension would have to compete with rail and other transportation projects for the money, which is available because of savings on other projects.
Hathaway said that on such freeway projects, the federal government usually pays 88.5% of freeway costs, with states paying the rest.
The freeway extension has been stalled by protests and lawsuits since 1965. The most adamant objections have come from South Pasadena, a 3.5-square-mile town of about 24,000 residents that would be split by the freeway.
The freeway project would plow through several historic districts and uproot more than 6,000 trees. Such potential damage placed the entire city of South Pasadena and parts of El Sereno on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "Most Endangered Places" list.
That distinction was recently dropped because freeway construction seemed unlikely.
South Pasadena is likely to file a lawsuit challenging the environmental impact statements supporting the highway extension, according to the city's lawyer, Antonio Rossmann.
Caltrans official Kosinski said such a suit would result only in a short delay.
Another pending suit challenges the project on behalf of a group of El Sereno residents allied with environmental and civil rights groups.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other groups have charged that the extension does not provide largely Latino El Sereno with the anti-pollution and historic preservation safeguards equal to those planned for predominantly white areas of Pasadena and South Pasadena.
Caltrans officials said they have sketched an alternative design that would send the freeway through through El Sereno below street level, which might satisfy the objections raised in the lawsuit.
The Caltrans plan is still in the works and is being discussed with the El Sereno plaintiffs.
Alhambra has sued the highway administration to force completion of the freeway extension, arguing that its absence sends thousands of cars into its streets each day, jamming traffic and fouling the air.
The highway administration's draft plan, disclosed by The Times this week, was officially presented Friday and lists a set of broad conditions that must be met before the project can move ahead.
The conditions include continued need for the extension, adequate funding and an acceptable plan for relocating residents whose homes stand in the proposed path.
Times staff writer Fiore reported from Washington and correspondent Winton reported from Los Angeles. Staff writer Peter Y. Hong contributed to this report.