September 5, 2008

Lawsuits Filed to Stop Tunnel

By Dan Abendschein

Two local cities have filed lawsuits to stop a proposed tunnel extension of the 710 Freeway from receiving $780 million in funding.

South Pasadena could have the tunnel dug under it, and La Ca ada Flintridge could see additional traffic from the project. The cities filed the suits against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority this week and claimed an environmental impact study has not been done on the project.

"You can't fund a project before it goes through an environmental review," said South Pasadena Councilman Richard Schneider, a vocal opponent of the 710 extension. "The lawsuit's goal is to knock out the funding for this project."

The 4.5-mile tunnel, which would connect the 710 and 210 freeways, does not have a proposed route. A preliminary feasibility study on the project was completed in 2006, but a follow-up study has not been done.

The project would receive $780 million from a proposed half-cent sales tax measure, if a state bill authorizing the measure is signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and if the measure is passed by two-thirds of county voters in November.

If either of those things does not happen, the lawsuits would be withdrawn, according to city officials.

Officials from both cities also said they do not oppose the sales tax measure as a whole. The lawsuit is designed only to remove funding from the tunnel project, not to invalidate the sales tax measure, according to legal documents in the case.

A 710 Freeway extension was opposed for decades by both cities when the proposal included building an above-ground road through South Pasadena.

South Pasadena and La Ca ada Flintridge each filed a separate lawsuit against the tunnel plan, but officials from both cities said the cases could be consolidated by a judge.

South Pasadena recently agreed to drop its opposition to SB 1350, state legislation that would have authorized the MTA to pursue a private-public partnership to allow a private company to complete the tunnel and charge tolls to recover its costs.

In exchange, the city received guarantees of legislative language that would give South Pasadena a right to reject an above-ground version of the freeway. The legislation died in committee last month, however, after opposition from environmental groups and some labor unions.

South Pasadena Mayor Philip Putnam said he did not see any contradiction between supporting the legislation and suing MTA over the tunnel proposal.

"They are completely different issues," Putnam said. "SB 1350 was to allow a funding mechanism, but it did not propose to allocate any money to a project that has no route."

He also said the city does not oppose a tunnel project from being carried out, but it does not want to see any funding for the project until it has an established route.

Councilman Mike Ten said the lawsuit probably would not have been filed had SB 1350 passed and the city had been guaranteed there would be no surface freeway. He said the city's concern is the MTA might build a surface route instead of a tunnel.

MTA spokeswoman Helen Ortiz Gilstrap said neither her agency nor Caltrans, the state highway authority, had eliminated the surface freeway plan completely, although she added the agency's preference is to pursue a tunnel option.

She said her agency could not comment on the pending lawsuits.

La Ca ada Flintridge's concerns about the project have to do with possible traffic impacts that could come with the freeway extension, Mayor Stephen Del Guercio said. He said those impacts need to be studied.

"I don't know what the effects will be, but we have suspicions that will be seeing air, noise, and traffic impacts if the project goes through," he said.

La Ca ada Flintridge City Manager Mark Alexander said both cities' cases assert that the MTA violated the California Environmental Quality Act by proposing funding for the project without an environmental review.

"Our lawyers' view is that the CEQA exemptions they are trying to apply are not valid," Alexander said.

In the state Legislature, local representatives have been divided over efforts to push the tunnel project, based on the geography of their districts.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Ca ada Flintridge, a former council member in La Ca ada Flintridge, has been the most vocal critic of the project. He previously voiced many of the arguments made in the lawsuit in the media and at MTA meetings.

He said he had expected the possibility of a lawsuit since July, when MTA put the 710 extension on its list of sales-tax projects.

"It was no surprise," Portantino said. "MTA was so hellbent on this project that good judgement went out the window."

Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park, a project advocate, represents areas that have long advocated completion of the freeway. He said he had not heard about the lawsuit and would need to review it before he could comment.

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