The Persistent Dreams of the Tunnel Builders

03/16/2015 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015


Some of the people seated around the long table in the elegant dark wooded South Pasadena home have been fighting the idea of a five-mile long tunnel nearly 200 feet beneath their feet for decades. To them, that tunnel is the multi-headed hydra that they beat down, but only for a while, and then it pops up again. It's like a cancerous tumor that can never be removed.

About the time Caltrans and Metro recently released a new Environmental Impact Report which once again advanced the notion of building the tunnel, this group of veteran tunnel fighters were meeting to take stock. The report also suggested alternatives to the tunnel, ranging from realignment of existing streets, or putting in a lot of light rail or doing nothing.

As far back as the '70s and some say even back to 1939, Caltrans' intention to complete the Long Beach (710) Freeway's from Long Beach to Pasadena was always part of the plan. But for years, the plan has been foiled in court by the No 710 Action Committee, acting in alliance with cities like South Pasadena and the Sierra Club. In other words, the people here in the room.

It has proven terribly galling to the freeway builders that they have not been able to complete that last leg to Pasadena in all these years. The freeways were pretty much built in the '50s, during America's flirtations with fascism in the form of McCarthyism. Freeways came out of that era, when Ronald Reagan declared that those who opposed building the Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine were communists -- because they wanted to preserve poor people's housing rather than play baseball. It was a period that allowed little dissent.

Yet activists fought Caltrans to a standstill. The freeway system that came in the aftermath of World War II was not without its doubters.

The Arroyo parkway built to link downtown Los Angeles and the Pasadena area opened in 1940 and was L.A.'s prototype freeway, inspired by Hitler's famed Autobahn. It was also about the same time that General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone tires acquired the rights of way to the old Red Car lines, tore the tracks out and opened up the way for the freeway builders. The effort to remold the Los Angeles basin with freeways after World War II held sway for years.

When efforts to extend the 710 on a surface route through South Pasadena were abandoned, Caltrans' engineers seized on the idea of a tunnel -- it would be the longest traffic tunnel ever built in the United States.

To the opponents, the idea of such a long tunnel was a worse nightmare -- a financial nightmare and a dangerous misadventure of the grandest proportions. The fact that there would be no egress once you entered the tunnel from either its southern or northern entrances, provokes images of many potential tunnel catastrophes for these activists. One even suggested the tunnel would prove to be an irresistible target for terrorists.

The men and women gathered around that South Pasadena table also seriously dispute the estimate of $5 billion for the tunnel as well -- pointing out that similar projects in Seattle and Boston for tunnels not as long had similar estimates, but by the time cost overruns were figured in, $5 billion tunnels had morphed into $20 billion tunnels.

No doubt the people at the table all shared a belief that freeways have been a disaster from the beginning -- slicing and dicing communities and creating miles and miles of wide swaths of concrete ghettoes.

In all the years that the freeway builders have determined the shape of the Los Angeles basin since World War II, there have been only two successful efforts to stop them. One was the opposition that arose to the 710 extension, and the other was the effort to stop the Beverly Hills Freeway, which would have wreaked terrible havoc on Los Angeles if it had been built from downtown Los Angeles through Hollywood and into Beverly Hills.

The only other place where the freeway builders were also decisively defeated was when San Francisco residents successfully fought to stop the any further construction on the Embarcadero Freeway, which would have destroyed the city's fabled waterfront.

The world views of the proponents of freeways and the opponents are like parallel universes. It makes perfect sense that opposition to more freeway building would have come from those cities like Pasadena and South Pasadena created in the craftsman era, which with their emphasis on light and air and wood, proudly standing on the human side of the equation. To this group at the table, it's a constant theme that the purveyors of the notion that the Los Angeles basin should be a concrete megapolis, are propelled by hubris, money and power.

Each of the activists at the table had their own reasons for opposing the freeway. Take Jane Soo Hoo, who left an academic career in biology to raise a family. She credits a lot of her perspective to the work of Bent Flyvbjerg, whose Harvard lecture, "Follies of Infrastructure: Why the Worst Projects Get Built, and How to Avoid It" says it all. The founding Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University, Flyvbjerg also wrote an article in The New Scientist, "Mega delusional: The Curse of the Megaproject." He was one of the experts hired to untangle Caltrans' mishandling of the recent upgrading of the Bay Bridge.

SooHoo believes that the engineers and road builders obsessed with paving over the Los Angele basin is more than just an obsession, it's a pathology.

To my left sits Jane Ervin, who is the one who brought me here. Ervin retired from many years as a top administrator at Los Angeles City Hall (she is the one who presided over President Clinton's bailout to the city after the 1994 earthquake). She happened to read a piece I wrote some years ago in the Pasadena Weekly about the insanity of freeways as a means of transportation and also remembered me as a classmate from the first grade at Westwood Elementary School.

She took me to dinner with an earlier set of anti-710ers. I was impressed by the folks who attended -- I particularly remember a couple who were professors of engineering at CalTech and had lots of trenchant observations.

But I didn't write anything at that point. The 710 extension was dead, seemingly abandoned even by Caltrans. But as Ervin pointed out, that was only a false lull. Here we are, back again, fighting the freeway builders with their obscene dreams of a concrete future, she seemed to be saying.

I was moved to ask the group, "Do any of you think we are dealing with a conspiracy here?"

"Follow the money, yes it's a conspiracy," adamantly pipes in Mary Ann Prada.

"Nah," said Rick Helgeson, a former Los Angeles Department of Water and Power counsel, who has done lots of free legal work for the anti-710 effort over the years. "Bureaucrats just do what they're trained to do. They're not doing anything illegal" But he said he was also mindful of the words of the great Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who rhetorically asked, "Why do we always build freeways through poor people's areas."

Prada likes to say she's"only a housewife" (nine children), nonetheless she has served has served as the anti-710s archivist for years. She began collecting material in the '60s, although some of it dates from way before then.

Playing the rube works well for Prada. With considerable relish she tells of the time she sat in a meeting with the "project manager" of the 405 Armageddon project.

She engaged in a surrealistic conversation with the gentleman who didn't know who she was -- since she was merely a housewife in the crowd. "You know this isn't going to solve any traffic problems," she said. "This won't end traffic on the 405."

She said he said, "I know."

"You know," she replied incredulously.

It was this same meeting at which some of the freeway types were talking, with great excitement, about a plan that would dwarf the 710 extension -- they were talking about putting more traffic in tunnels underneath the existing Carmageddon lanes.

"Build it and they will come," Prada quoted him as saying.

Clara Bagaard, the wife of the current mayor of Pasadena, contemplates her own opposition to the 710 extension. She thinks the question comes down to health -- is it better to live in a Los Angeles basin that is mostly concrete because that's what big money dictates? Especially if you realize that living in a concrete jungle is both dangerous and unhealthy. "We're doing everything for the automobile by making the basin uninhabitable for humans. That's what bothers me -- it's as if human lives don't matter, just the dollar -- and the egos of the engineers."

So what will happen? Diana Mahmud, Helgeson's attorney spouse and mayor pro team of South Pasadena, who worked with him for the Department of Water and Power, says she thinks there's a shift coming in public thinking.

Mahmud believes that the upcoming generation is more inclined to get on a swift train rather than own a car and drive on the freeways. The newest generations are less enthralled by cars than older ones, she says. They don't want to commute -- they value highly the notion of living close to where they work.

"They don't want to just keep adding lanes to the freeways, which never solves the problem anyway," she added.

She also predicts that the tunnel will fail because of the financing. The tunnel builders need private money because they know there is no public money for the project. So the idea is to make the freeway a tollroad. The tolls would service the investor's stake.

Mahmud describes how she was recently at a meeting where the tunnel builders met with the high-rollers. Authorities tried to keep her from coming in, but as an attorney with a knowledge of the Brown Act, they had to let her in. From what she heard, the big boys weren't that turned on. "It was clear to me they had no appetite for the project. They are concerned about litigation," she said, noting that well they should be -- because the anti-710 forces have fought them successfully at every step in the courts.

She said the big boys also don't want to deal with controversy, and "we're good at creating controversy." She said they want to be handed projects where all the arguing and litigation is over and that's never going to be the case here.

I ask who best represents the freeway builders. They all quickly agree this would be Barbara Messina, the five-time mayor and council member of Alhambra. She has led the fight for the 710 extension as vigorously as they have opposed it. Over the years, they have learned to regard Messina as a formidable opponent. But Diana Mahmud shocks the group by dismissing Messina as "small potatoes."

The others in the room are less sanguine about Messina. They note that she has a husband and son who worked for Caltrans. Messina is one of the cabal of tunnel builders. So was Roger Snoble, once chief of Los Angeles' Metro, which got a lot of money for transit because of Measure R. His was the last great voice for the tunnel. Messina suggests Measure R provided some money for the tunnel, but the anti-710 activists say the tunnel was never mentioned on the ballot box. They say the measure was sold with the promise of more rail.

Everyone at the table proclaimed that more and more people are swinging to their side. The data base has grown from a 100 or so to thousands. But still, they worry about Messina.

I chat with Messina. Yes, she admits, she favors the tunnel because it is the only plan that provides "air quality, mobility and ending congestion." She said it still had not been decided if trucks would be allowed in the toll tunnels.

And she is convinced that after a 120 or days of comments, hearings and the like, of the three scenarios proposed in the report, only the tunnel will make sense. The alternatives are more light rail and another to streamline traffic flow. Messina dismisses light rail as "ridiculous" and says traffic mitigation techniques have all been implemented In the end, she's convinced, the tunnel will be "the only logical choice."

Years ago, Messina served on the Alhambra school board, and says twice she buried students she knew who were killed by traffic, caused by the fact that the 710 extension was never built.

Messina says she can understand why people hate freeways, but says they are an "indispensable part" of existence in the Los Angeles basin. "It's not the same as back east or in Northern California. We are built totally different. It's a necessity of our way of life. They have to drive the same freeways they are opposing."

To Messina, the only reason people would oppose freeways is that they don't care about people who live in place like Alhambra, where there are many poor people who the opponents of freeways regard as so much garbage.

She's as absolutely convinced the freeway will be built as the opponents are who say it never should be and never will be built.
LIONEL ROLFE is the author of a number of books, including "Literary L.A.," "Fat Man on the Left," "The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey" and "The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather," all available in Amazon's Kindlestore.