The half-century battle to complete the 710 Freeway through Pasadena and South Pasadena using a surface route could come to an end as early as today if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs legislation that would bar aboveground construction on a route that has long been considered the missing link in L.A.'s highway system.
The bill would eliminate the possibility of completing the final leg of the 710 Freeway from where it ends at Valley Boulevard at the edge of Alhambra to Pasadena using a surface route. That plan has spawned loud protests from preservationists and some residents.
If the governor signs the bill, the only available option would be a tunnel about 4 1/2 miles long -- a massive and expensive project and the largest tunnel undertaken in the history of the California Department of Transportation.
It would cost as much as $3.6 billion to build, according to early estimates. That compares with about $850 million for an aboveground freeway, Caltrans officials said, adding that the exact cost of the tunnel would depend on the route.
Officials have not proposed a specific alignment for the tunnel, but they are considering numerous routes, including some that would veer radically to the east or west, away from the original 710 Freeway route planned through South Pasadena.
Such an ambitious tunnel has never been completed in California, and some consider the project prohibitively expensive. It also has generated strong opposition from some communities where ground conditions have been examined to determine a tunnel's feasibility there.
Despite the decades of debate about completing the 710, there has been relatively little controversy about taking the surface freeway off the table.
Still there remains a good deal of skepticism over whether the bill would really kill the freeway, noting that the plan has been declared dead before only to rise again.
"We're so happy to reach a resolution. It only took about 50 years to get . . . a peace agreement," said state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). "Our commitment was to save the homes, build the tunnel, be optimistic about the future. . . . As modest as the bill is on its surface, it simply says we're going to eliminate the surface option. It really is a major step forward; it really is a paradigm shift," he said.
The governor has not indicated whether he will sign the bill. But if he does, some local officials plan to demand that Caltrans sell hundreds of homes in South Pasadena, Los Angeles and elsewhere that the state bought along part of the proposed surface route.
The homes -- many of which have sat vacant -- have become a rallying cry for freeway critics. Caltrans said it has no immediate plans to sell the homes because the proposed tunnel could require some of those properties.
Construction of the freeway that begins in Long Beach started in 1951 but stopped short of completion in 1965 because of South Pasadena residents' claims that the route would divide their community.
The 710 ends at Valley Boulevard near the border of Los Angeles and Alhambra, and that city has complained about freeway traffic flowing into its neighborhoods.
Caltrans has long wanted to extend the freeway through South Pasadena and Pasadena, connecting it to the interchange of the 134 and 210 freeways.
South Pasadena has been the hotbed of opposition to the freeway -- and passions remain high today.
Herman Gelauff, 77, said he has lived in South Pasadena for three decades, and when asked about a possible surface route extension he quickly responded, "I'm against it. It will cut the city in two."
Caltrans proposed the tunnel in recent years as a way of addressing community concerns, and the bill on Schwarzenegger's desk, SB 545, was written by Cedillo and crafted as a compromise that would put an end to the debate once and for all.
But some local communities -- including Glendale -- have formally opposed the plan.
"The project is of such gigantic scope and cost that there will never be enough money to fund it," said Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge), who staunchly opposed the bill in the Legislature.
Mark Stewart, a 59-year-old retired schoolteacher, has lived in Alhambra for 25 years and has always opposed the proposal to build an aboveground route that would connect the 710 and 210 freeways.
But Stewart is warm to a tunnel that could serve as the connecting route. It would "take a lot of traffic off the roads in Pasadena and South Pasadena" and not disturb as many residents, he said.
Stewart, who said he has been listening to arguments about the extension since he moved into the area, doesn't see a resolution, or construction, happening any time soon.
"Based on what's happened so far, it could be going on for another 25 years," Stewart said.
Transportation officials said that although tunnels can be pricey, they are possible and many are confident the proposal could work as a connector.