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In Need of a Plan, Any Plan, to Improve Freeway

Delay in choosing a way to expand the 710 could cost such a project federal funding.

May 31, 2003|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Although no one can say just how the Long Beach Freeway might be upgraded to improve traffic flow, a transportation panel is rushing to meet a deadline to secure federal funding for whatever project might evolve.

The panel is seeking up to $400 million from Congress in a major transportation funding bill that could pass this fall. Those who support expanding the truck-choked freeway say that developments this week buoyed the project's chances to secure federal dollars in a race for funds on Capitol Hill.

Some residents remain on edge, worried that their homes might be vulnerable if the freeway is significantly widened.

The last 10 days have been a roller-coaster ride for those residents and commuters monitoring a 29-month, $3.9-million study of how to improve a major artery overwhelmed by cargo moving from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

First came the May 22 vote by the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that seemed to apply the brakes -- at least for now -- to plans to expand the freeway between East Los Angeles and Long Beach. Then, on Wednesday, a separate transportation panel advanced an ambitious schedule to design a plan over the summer.

"We just got the feeling it was moving full speed ahead," said Julie Masters, a senior staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who attended the meeting Wednesday.

The panel has promised to minimize the demolition of homes and businesses.

The vote comes amid continued debate over how to better move cargo through the nation's largest port complex and what costs should be borne by surrounding communities. Most people agree the freeway must be improved, but the preferred methods vary widely.

Three construction plans made public this spring called for major construction along an 18-mile stretch of freeway.

The plans were widely condemned by residents along the freeway because they could force the removal of up to 1,000 homes and businesses.

The board of the project's lead agency, the MTA, last week voted to shelve the three plans and recommend a fourth that would not take homes. It also asked that MTA staff work with local officials to develop a new "hybrid" plan with pieces from the rejected construction plans, as long as homes were not taken.

Then, on Wednesday, the transportation panel voted 8 to 4 to move ahead with designing a hybrid plan this summer. The panel represents local cities, the ports and four state and regional planning agencies.

Some critics were mystified by the vote, especially in light of concerns that the panel already had ignored residents' concerns.

Making matters even murkier, it was unclear who in the end would decide whether and how the Long Beach Freeway should be improved.

Some say that authority belongs to the transportation panel, known as the Oversight Policy Committee.

"In this process, the final decision on picking the locally preferred strategy is the body that met [Wednesday]," said Richard Powers, executive director of the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, which provides staff to the panel. "The MTA is one of 20 members on this board, and the collective body is the one that makes the determination on the locally preferred strategy."

But the MTA's executive officer for planning, Jim de la Loza, said Friday that the policy committee will make a recommendation, but that the MTA board has the final say.

Under a revised schedule, local officials will meet June 11 to start choosing what parts of the old plans they want included in a hybrid design. The policy committee is to choose a conceptual plan July 16 and endorse a final strategy Oct. 16.

The process ahead is akin to pulling apart Lego pieces and fitting them together in a different design, planners say.

Some residents say they are grateful the committee is taking a harder look, rather than rubber-stamping the earlier plans, as some had feared.

"I'm glad they are at least slightly slowing down and recognizing that their previous approaches have raised some issues. It's too bad some of these issues were not raised sooner," said Linda Ivers, a longtime Long Beach resident who expressed concerns about potential health and environmental effects of an expanded freeway.

One policy committee member said he will try to slow down the process even more.

Bell Gardens City Councilman Daniel Crespo, who voted against the Wednesday resolution, said the vote was premature and that he believes the ports and shippers are behind the drive for freeway expansion.

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