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Caltrans: LA freeway expansion project could improve public health

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Expanding a major Los Angeles freeway in an area known for traffic-related air pollution could improve public health, according to a draft environmental impact report issued last month by the California Department of Transportation.

The project, known as the I-710 Corridor Project, could increase the number of lanes on the nearly 25-mile freeway, which runs north to south from East Los Angeles to Long Beach. Every day, it serves as a crucial route for 120,000 commuters and 30,000 trucks that use the freeway to transport goods from Southern California ports to nearly every corner of the country.

Caltrans said in its report that the project aims to resolve the freeway’s chronic congestion and reduce its high accident rate, especially as the region continues to grow. 

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“The project would improve air quality and public health, improve traffic safety, modernize the freeway design, and accommodate projected growth for population, employment, and economic activities related to goods movement,” the report stated.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the project could cost up to $7 billion.

Community advocates and residents who live along the I-710 corridor ­– 70 percent of whom are low-income and minorities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ­– agree that the freeway needs improvements. But they were skeptical that they would see air quality improvements where they live.

“I’ve been in the area for a long time, and I’m especially concerned with health issues,” said Isella Ramirez, co-director of the Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “My family has suffered a lot of health impacts; it’s hard to see them fight against cancer and struggle with asthma. It’s important that that doesn’t continue to happen to families in this area and that we don’t multiply the effects just so that (businesses) can get their products in time to Chicago.”

Construction on the project is slated to begin in 2020, and several variations of the freeway expansion are being considered. The most large-scale option involves adding up to 10 lanes and four additional truck-only lanes. There is also a “no-build” option where scheduled improvements would be made without expanding the freeway.

The environmental impact report noted that public health would improve as a result of the freeway expansion partly because air quality would get better. Air pollution would be reduced “by improving traffic flow as well as the use of low/zero emission trucks, when the technology becomes available,” Judy Gish, a Caltrans spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

Some public health experts said the report lacked clarity when it came to its description of air quality improvements.

“The draft EIR (environmental impact report) for the I-710 corridor has thousands of pages, and Caltrans does not always make its underlying assumptions easy to understand,” Andrea Hricko, a professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, wrote in an email. “The health risk analyses are confusing, with some of the alternatives for expansion showing increased PM (particulate matter pollution) levels, yet decreased health risks.”

USC researchers have looked closely at the health impacts of traffic-related air pollution on kids by tracking the health of thousands of children in Southern California for 20 years.

“The studies have shown that children growing up in communities with high particle pollution are more likely to have reduced lung function,” Hricko wrote in an email. “Children in communities with high ozone levels are more likely to miss more school through absences. … There are now lots of papers published on this topic, with results showing that children who live or go to school near busy roads and freeways are more likely to have asthma and reduced lung function.”

A March letter to Caltrans from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also raised concerns about the air quality impacts on communities near the 710 freeway, and on children’s health in particular.

“This project will result in a high level of community-wide impacts, in an area that is already heavily burdened from poor air quality related to the goods movement sector,” the letter said. “Because of the anticipated impacts from this project in this setting, it is critical that the EIS (environmental impact statement) include a robust analysis of the air quality, environmental justice, and children's health impacts that will result.”

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates Los Angeles air pollution along with the California Air Resources Board, said it could not yet fully evaluate the potential air quality impacts of the 710 corridor project because Caltrans has failed to supply the underlying documentation to support its analysis.

To address air quality concerns related to the project, the agency “would like to see and strongly support zero-emission transport technologies and need these technologies in this region to meet federal air quality goals,” Tina Cherry, a spokeswoman for the district wrote in an email.

Ramirez of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice said that she supports improvement to the 710 freeway, but she preferred some options over others.

“We are working hard to make sure that air quality is our number one priority for this improvement project and to me, that means not expanding the general purpose lanes,” Ramirez said. “It means let’s separate the trucks from the regular traffic, add four lanes for a freight corridor, and make them zero-emission. If we are going to depend on goods movement for the economic livelihood of these cities, at the very least, let’s be responsible about the health of the communities living directly in the clear vicinity of the 710.”

City of Commerce Councilwoman Denise Robles agreed that the freeway improvements needed to be balanced with residents’ well-being. In addition to air quality impacts, the report described other repercussions, including noise. Additionally, some houses in Commerce, Bell Gardens and Compton may need to be demolished and residents relocated to make way for the expansion.

“This project is needed because of traffic congestion. However, we need to ensure that the quality of life for our residents in Commerce and how they will be affected will be handled properly – everything from their houses, air quality, everything needs to be taken care of for them,” she said.

Robles said that if she could call the shots, she’d like to see more investment in public transportation.

“If I were the ultimate authority to come up with a solution, I would say, ‘Get more and better public transportation so we don’t need to continue to widen our roads for private cars,’” she said. “Then we can deal with the truck traffic as a separate issue. If we had better public transportation it would help out quite a bit.”

The first in a series of public meetings related to the draft environmental impact report will be held next Tuesday. The final day for public comment on the draft environmental report is Aug. 29.

“Community input is going to be a big element of the decision-making process,” said Caltrans’ Gish.

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