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Alhambra, S. Pasadena Playing Chicken Again

July 24, 2002|ANTHONY McCARTNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alhambra and South Pasadena agree that traffic on Fremont Avenue, a major north-south artery linking the cities, is pretty awful. That's about all they agree on.

Events last week were a reminder of the intractable nature of the problem--and of the prickly relationship of two cities at odds over plans to extend the Long Beach Freeway. But first, a little history.

It's three years since the first battle of Fremont Avenue backfired and blew up in Alhambra's face.

In July 1999, Alhambra blocked off a portion of Fremont in an attempt to keep southbound traffic from South Pasadena out of Alhambra. South Pasadenans saw the move as a way to punish their city for its more than 30-year opposition to extending the 710 Freeway, a longtime Alhambra goal.

But instead of diverting traffic elsewhere, the tactic left cars idling on Alhambra streets, suffocating local businesses. After three days, the barricades came down.

Last week, the battle of Fremont was rejoined, only this time it was South Pasadena's turn to try to limit traffic on Fremont.

At a hearing July 17, the City Council considered 11 options on how to get traffic off Fremont, a residential street, and onto wider, commercially zoned Fair Oaks Avenue, which also runs north-south. One option, labeled "most promising" by engineers, essentially called for blocking off Fremont to divert traffic onto Huntington Drive and eventually to Fair Oaks.

When Alhambra officials showed up for the hearing, they didn't mention the first battle of Fremont. And they didn't offer any friendly advice, only brief remarks about how negative changes in traffic might force a response. Read: lawsuit.

South Pasadena residents spoke up, saying their quiet streets would become detours for motorists. Business owners near Fremont and Huntington said they worried that the changes might hurt them.

Oddly enough, when the public comment period ended, residents on both sides agreed Fremont should remain open. The council postponed a decision on the Fremont project, agreeing to schedule another public session in August.

From Alhambra's perspective, the roadblock stems from South Pasadena's continued opposition to extending the 710 Freeway, which now dead-ends at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, to the 210 Freeway. This would entail cutting through South Pasadena.

From South Pasadena's perspective, the problem is Alhambra's insistence that the freeway be built, though it has suggested the 710 could be extended to Mission Drive in Alhambra.

Naturally, Alhambra and South Pasadena residents frequently find themselves in each other's cities. Staff members from both cities say they frequently talk to each other, always amicably. But other than mutual-aid agreements, which allow emergency crews to respond to incidents within each other's borders, public works projects continue to follow a different track.

Alhambra is spending $10 million to widen parts of Fremont in anticipation of the freeway. The Fremont-Huntington intersection is one of several traffic spots South Pasadena hopes to improve with a $12-million state grant.

When asked, most city officials try to put a good face on Alhambra-South Pasadena relations by touting each other as good, cooperative neighbors.

But not Alhambra Vice Mayor Mark Paulson. "There is no cooperation," said Paulson, who was mayor during the first battle of Fremont.

Still, at last week's meeting, civility prevailed. Alhambra Councilman Paul Talbot credited the South Pasadena City Council for trying to resolve the Fremont issue amicably. Talbot suggested that the council consider extending the 710 at least to Huntington Drive. "I thought I was going to get skewered," Talbot later said.

Rather than offering a sharp stick, the council extended an olive branch. Could the two councils meet to discuss the issue? wondered South Pasadena City Councilman Michael Cacciotti.

"Absolutely," Talbot said.

But afterward, Talbot called the Fremont options a "Band-Aid." And after the Alhambra city attorney vaguely threatened a lawsuit, South Pasadena Mayor Harry Knapp suggested that if Alhambra was serious about relieving traffic, it should review the timing of a traffic light at Fremont and Main Street. His constituents applauded.

For now, South Pasadena engineers will continue searching for ways to send traffic from Fremont over to Fair Oaks.

"We're trying to break the habits of a lifetime without creating a political or litigation issue," said Franklin Sherkow, vice president of the firm hired by South Pasadena to try to fix Fremont.

One low-budget solution, he suggested, would be to educate drivers by erecting signs--"Be a good neighbor. Take Huntington"--along Fremont Avenue.

The suggestion hung in the air for a moment, and then came the audience's answer.

They laughed.

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