Is the 710 Gap Closure Project So Bad?

Where NIMBY-ism meets the practical needs of an effecient and effective transportation system.

The transit/livability blogosphere is fairly intolerant of dissent, or so I’ve observed. I’m going to go out on a limb here and toss my opinion into the stew of NIMBY-ism, politics and money that surrounds the Interstate 710 Gap Closure Project. Granted, I am an engineer looking at this project, not a community organizer or politician who sees the more subjective aspects to the project – rather here I will concentrate on the engineering, traffic and transportation merits of closing this crucial gap in the Metropolitan Los Angeles Freeway System.

Unlike most other freeway extension proposals in Los Angeles (extending CA-2 to US-101 comes to mind), the I-710 Gap Closure project addresses a critical connection between freeways that would increase the utility of both the existing portion of I-710 south of Alhambra and I-210 in Pasadena and points north and east. In addition, Caltrans already owns sufficient right of way for tunnel portals and ventilation structures, the state along and LACMTA have been studying this corridor for decades and funding would be (relatively) easily obtained.

Before I go further, note that I am advocating a proposal of an entirely bored tunnel under Alhambra, South Pasadena, Northeast Los Angeles and Pasadena along the alignment highlighted on the map. A surface option is obviously not viable.  In addition, the construction of this tunnel would be accompanied by significant mitigation measures. Each bore would have three lanes, an HOV-3/Bus Lane and two general purpose lanes (GPL). Tolls would be electronically collected from motorists and truckers with dynamic pricing ensuring smooth-flowing traffic in the tunnels at all times. These tolls would help fund extensive bus service. Another mitigation measure would be a connecting structure between the HOV-3/Bus Lane in the tunnels to the El Monte Busway on I-10.

A mitigation measure that could ease the community’s concerns about this project is the demolition of the 110 freeway from its terminus at Arroyo Parkway to near Arroyo Drive. This three mile segment would be turned into a surface-level boulevard, providing development opportunities and removing the physical barrier between Pasadena and South Pasadena. The 110 would empty out onto this new parkway, but also give motorists the option to change over to the 710 freeway in a small-scale, low-speed interchange in the Arroyo Seco.

Such a proposal would connect the three currently unconnected freeway segments in the area and solve the nightmarish traffic problems on surface streets at the north end of the 710, south end of the 710 and north end of the 110.

Yes, the 710 Gap Closure Project would increase VMT. It would also increase carbon emissions, potential traffic congestion on either end of the tunnels on the 10, 710, 110, 134 and 210 freeways and would likely massively increase truck traffic on I-210 between Pasadena and San Fernando due to the convenient new connection between the ports and I-5 north.

The biggest problem I have with the opposition to the 710 Gap Closure Project is its concentration on the small picture of hyper-local issues. Yes, Caltrans will likely need to demolish about 10-20 properties to build the project. I have worked on transit project that have condemned more, potentially including a 32-story office tower. Tunnel boring machines are extremely effective, safe, and can build tunnels at adequate depth to avoid surface noise and vibration from any type of road traffic. This is a message our friends in Beverly Hills need to hear about their upcoming TBM experience for the Westside Subway Extension. Anyway, a little sacrifice from the few residents who stand to lose their homes (note: Caltrans is already their landlord – they bought potentially effected properties in the 1980’s) would benefit the whole region. NIMBY’s have already used their power to (rightfully) force a bored tunnel option for this project. Opposing it in its entirety is taking their power a bit too far.

Why am I still a proponent of a mitigated, bored tunnel for the 710 Gap Closure Project? Transportation policy is about moving people and goods in the most efficient possible manner. Although I’m very much dedicated to increasing the reach and viability of transit, intercity rail, walking and cycling, the automobile is here to stay as a mode of transportation in America. Freight trucks are also here to stay, and rail connections between Southern California and the Central Valley are terrible. To permit the most efficient movement of goods and people, the freeway system around Pasadena needs this reworking. With proper mitigation – extensive bus service, dynamic tolls, limited lane capacity and an HOV-3 requirement, the 710 tunnel would be a great success, improving mobility in the San Gabriel Valley and in Los Angeles as a whole. I would let Caltrans bore a tunnel deep under my house, wouldn’t you?



About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on February 28, 2011, in Los Angeles, Measure R, Policy and Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You’re right that the Streetsblog crowd is fairly single-minded, but that’s about it for this post.

    You’re an engineer, which means you’re paid to answer “can we do this?” Can we is not the same thing as should we. Us planners have to figure out whether these projects are a good idea and how the hell to pay for them.

    Here are a handful of glaring issues you ignore:
    1. Opportunity cost – what could otherwise be built using the resources that the 710 project would consume. Is the 710 the best use of those resources?

    2. Freight in the tunnel – the proposals I’ve seen wouldn’t even be allow trucks in the tunnel for “safety” reasons. (See I-5 truck route inferno a few years ago.) This thing isn’t for freight. And don’t try to claim that it will relieve congestion on other freight corridors by reallocating auto trips. Any possible indirect effect would be vastly outweighed by induced demand.

    3. Risk of cost overruns – who is on the hook for these? Which transit projects will not be built when this thing consumes more than its funding allocation. It is worth noting that the current cost estimates are exactly in line with Boston’s Big Dig preliminary estimates. How did that turn out?

    4. Historic Arroyo Seco Parkway – let’s just say that your proposal to remove a significant piece of it is a nonstarter.

    There are plenty more objections, and none of the above is an ideological “freeways bad, transit good” argument. If you can make an honest cost-benefit argument that this tunnel is worth its enormous cost, then go for it. I have yet to see anyone successfully argue that.

  2. Thanks for your input.

    1. In this article, I operated under the (potentially false) assumption that most of the funding for this project would come from sources that are dedicated to highways, not funding that could potentially be used for transit projects. In my opinion, the 710 tunnel would be a better use for highway funds than the horrible, sprawl-inducing freeway Caltrans is about to build between Palmdale and Victorville. If transit projects could use the 4.5 billion that this project is budgeted for, there would be a massive opportunity cost in building the tunnel rather than, say, a subway replacement for the El Monte Busway or Orange Line, or a tunneled LRT line across the Sepulveda Pass. In a comparison of increased mobility to capital expenditure, the 710 tunnel is not an effective project.

    2. This is a political issue, not an engineering issue. The Gotthard Tunnel in the Alps has non-hazardous lorry traffic in it, and it is twice as long as this 710 tunnel. I would only support a 710 tunnel if trucks were allowed to use it. Otherwise, as you correctly point out, this tunnel would be of limited utility and would not even get heavy use (until of course induced demand sets in a few years after opening).

    3. Again, cost overruns can be hedged by the public sector by writing an airtight design-build contract where the designer-builder is responsible for all construction-related cost overruns. Note that on projects like the Expo line this structure failed because of numerous (I mean NUMEROUS) change orders and deviations from the original plans, including the Venice/Robertson and Farmdale stations. The Big Dig was a much riskier project due to the proximity of Boston Harbor, larger geographic scale, and the density of the building environment. The 710 tunnel is not being built directly under an operating elevated freeway, in an area that was built up in the 1600’s, or in an area with anywhere near as much utility spaghetti as downtown Boston.

    4. I agree. People are already freaking out about Caltrans building the new concrete barrier on the 110. My proposal would be a political failure.

    Let me put it this way: as far as highway projects go, the 710 tunnel is effective at increasing mobility while not inducing sprawl. The same principle applies to the Presidio Parkway project in San Francisco that I’ll be working on this summer.

    Regardless of what happens with the 710, a comprehensive corridor study along this alignment to reduce congestion and improve mobility is warranted. The stub-ends of the 710 and 110 could be better integrated into neighborhoods with traffic calming and attractive surface boulevards like the Embarcadero or Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco, making the area better connected and more livable.

  3. thanks for the map. I haven’t seen a map anywhere after searching for quite a while on the internet. Could you do a follow up where you post the various options in a map(s)? It is quite ridiculous why MTA won’t post some maps.

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