Interstate 710 in Los Angeles is predicted to see a big spike in truck traffic. But plans to add lanes are now on hold.
Truck-heavy I-710 in Los Angeles is predicted to see a big spike in traffic. But plans to add lanes are now on hold. Chris Carlson/AP

After resistance from environmental and community groups, a plan to add lanes to the 710 has been put on hold, but critics remain wary.

A controversial project to widen a heavily trafficked freeway in Los Angeles County sputtered to a surprising halt earlier this month. Transportation officials had been expected to choose between two expansion plans for the 710 freeway in southeast L.A. County. Instead, the board of Metro, the county’s transit agency, voted to move ahead with some improvements while tabling the controversial $6 billion scheme to add an additional lane in each direction  from Long Beach to East L.A.

In an (in)famously sprawling metropolis where the freeway network doubles as civic iconography, the 710 expansion had been framed as a referendum of sorts on Southern California’s mobility priorities. The original midcentury creation of L.A.’s freeway system left a bitter legacy of displacement, and the very same (largely minority) communities that were sliced and diced for that construction have been battered by the adverse environmental effects of freeway proximity. The 710 freeway corridor—dubbed the “diesel death zone” for its traffic-related health impacts—stands as Exhibit A for that phenomenon, and community groups had vocally opposed and organized against the expansion plans for many years.

The unanimous vote by Metro’s board of directors doesn’t definitively rule out a future expansion of the 710 freeway; it just punts the decision for what could be years to come. But even that represents a shift in the status quo for a city that has promised to invest more heavily in non-automotive mobility (see the passage in 2016 of Measure M, which will fund some $120 billion in transit projects over the next 40 years). It also speaks to the increasing—and long overdue—volume of environmental justice concerns in policy discussions, and a dawning understanding that adding lanes is rarely a cure-all for a clogged highway. Most foes of highway expansion are now very familiar with the principle of “induced demand,“ which has shown that increasing roadway capacity merely invites more drivers to show up.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who serves as Metro’s board chair, made his take on the issue clear at the meeting: “Widening freeways, we should be past that time unless we are putting vehicles that don’t emit into those lanes. Period.”

Similar freeway struggles are being fought in cities around the country, even in places whose reputation for sprawl and reliance on single-occupancy vehicles rivals that of Los Angeles. In 2016, then-newly elected Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner made headlines when he called for a “paradigm shift” away from highway widening. As proof, he cited the city’s mammoth Katy Freeway, a 26-lane monument to induced demand: Rush-hour travel times actually increased a few years after a multi-billion dollar expansion project. The Katy, Turner said, “clearly demonstrated that the traditional strategy of adding capacity... exacerbates urban congestion problems. These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

A few years prior, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote that “Southern California’s great era of highway-building has been over for some time.” The commentary came in a column questioning the necessity of L.A.’s last big freeway widening project, an expansion of the 405 that cost more than a billion dollars and has had little tangible effect on congestion since its completion.

So why pour billions into expanding the 710 now? In a word, modernization. The 710 was designed and built in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it is ill-equipped to handle current usage—let alone the traffic of decades future. The freeway spans a mere 23 miles of Los Angeles County; the 19-mile stretch in question travels north-south from Long Beach to the 60 freeway in East Los Angeles, running roughly parallel to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. The 710 carries commuters, but it’s also a vital transportation artery for freight movement, connecting trucks from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rest of the country. This makes the question of the 710 expansion slightly more complicated than the average freeway-widening equation, with the volume of freight movement creating concerns that extend beyond just moving cars full of people from point A to B.

You might not associate Los Angeles with cargo, but the two San Pedro Bay ports are the busiest in the nation: Together, they handle a staggering 40 percent of all goods entering the U.S. by sea. The 710 freeway links the ports to the commercial railroad freight yards in Vernon and Commerce, just southeast of downtown Los Angeles, making it possible for the rest of America to get everything from flat-screen TVs to automobile parts delivered from across the globe. According to Metro’s estimates, daily truck trips through the corridor are expected to increase to approximately 55,000 by 2035, more than a 50 percent increase from the current average of 36,000 trips a day. The 710’s facelift is aimed at both adding capacity and improving traffic safety and other operational issues; more than half of the interchange ramps in the corridor, for example, have higher-than-average accident rates.

But so far, the communities who live in the freeway’s shadow haven’t had much of say in the project, says Laura Cortez, a community organizer with a group called East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. A string of small cities along the corridor—Compton, Lynwood, Bell Gardens, Downey—have borne the brunt of the freeway’s emissions. In 2011, Scientific American characterized the pollution levels along the 710 “severe,” writing that “[h]ot spots for cancer-causing traffic pollutants have been found throughout the harbor area, particularly along Interstate 710.”

“The folks who live next to the 710 are people of color,” Cortez told CityLab. She’s a lifelong resident of Bell Gardens, a predominantly Latino city sandwiched between Downey and Commerce that hugs the eastern side of the 710. “We are folks who are low-income, working class, people of color. And we’re the folks who are not getting notified about the project.”

Like most projects in Los Angeles, the 710 expansion involves a patchwork of agencies. Metro has spent years developing the plan with Caltrans, the state transportation agency, and Caltrans still needs to certify final plans. The widening option was considered alongside a second (and far more expensive) proposal, known as Alternative 7, which would create a futuristic-looking, elevated four-lane route for low- or no-emission trucks above the existing freeway, at a cost of $10 billion.

At $6 billion, the scheme to expand the 710’s footprint isn’t that much cheaper, and only about a billion of it is currently funded. That plan was met with widespread dismay when it was proposed, particularly from residents and environmental and community groups. “More lanes,” said StreetsblogLA, “means more traffic, more congestion, more pollution, more asthma, more cancer, more death.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board declared that simply widening the freeway would be “a missed opportunity and a waste of taxpayer money,” calling it a “a solution straight of the 1950s.” The widening would have also displaced hundreds of homes and businesses alongside the freeway. A Caltrans environmental evaluation estimated that more than a hundred homes and 158 businesses would be displaced. KCET reported that any undocumented immigrant residents affected by displacement wouldn’t be eligible for the compensation that is standard practice in these cases.

Although Metro has at least temporarily backed off the widening project, the activist groups who have long organized around environmental justice issues in the southeast L.A. County communities along the freeway are not ready to declare last week’s vote a victory. “Instead of coming up with a cohesive and thoughtful plan... the board is asking communities to take a leap of faith and just blindly trust that the agency will somehow transform this project at some point in the future,” Earthjustice attorney Adrian Martinez said after the vote, according to Curbed LA.

“We are definitely still concerned,” said Cortez, whose group is part of the 710 corridor-focused Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice. “Whether [widening does happen] this year or in 20 years, there will still be displacement in the midst of a housing crisis.”

For organizers like her, the days and years ahead will be focused on educating and involving the community on various aspects of the plan as they move forward. “Even when you’re in the Metro board room, these things aren’t easy to understand,” she said. “A lot folks are frustrated. This is a very emotional process for residents who live here, whose children are affected with health issues because they live next to the 710.”

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