Roadblock to dissent
Alhambra Mayor Barbara Messina calls Glendale Councilman, former MTA Board member and 710 tunnel opponent Ara
Najarian a ‘crybaby’
A brouhaha between Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board Member Ara Najarian, who opposes plans to build a tunnel connecting the 710 (Long Beach) and Foothill (210) freeways, and a fellow board member who supports the tunnel and successfully helped block Najarian’s reconfirmation to the board appears to be just beginning.
Najarian — also a member of Glendale City Council — told the Weekly he will once again seek nomination for a seat on the MTA Board of Directors, on which his could be a deciding vote in any decision to extend the freeway.
In his role with the MTA, Najarian, first elected to the Glendale council in 2004 and appointed to the MTA board in 2008, represents North County Cities, comprising 12 local communities, among them Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge, Glendale and Burbank, all of which formally oppose the tunnel extension proposal. The MTA Board includes one city council representative each from the San Gabriel Valley Cities, West Side Cities, Gateway Cities and North County Cities. Najarian’s position is extremely unpopular among leaders in the San Gabriel Valley, who support the tunnel idea.
Alhambra Mayor Barbara Messina and Duarte Mayor John Fasana, also a member of the MTA board, led the effort to block Najarian’s confirmation because they believe a 4.5-mile long tunnel from where the 710 ends at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra to West Pasadena would alleviate traffic and clear up air pollution in their cities.
“Neither the MTA nor anyone else involved in the project can give us a reasonable estimate about how much it would cost,” Najarian said of the tunnel idea, which involves construction of two barrel-like tunnels, 80-feet in diameter, with an initial estimated cost of $5.5 billion. The proposal, the most elaborate and expensive of a number of ideas being considered by the MTA and Caltrans, is strongly opposed by Pasadena residents, even some who have in the past supported plans to connect the freeways overland.
“I am concerned it will end up like the Boston Big Dig, which started out at $3 billion and ended at $15 billion,” said Najarian of the controversial subway project. “Also, it would be very harmful to the communities adjacent to the tunnel, South Pasadena and Pasadena. There is no provision to clean the soot and gases, which are going to be concentrated in the tunnel, and it is not really going to provide any traffic relief.”
On Dec. 6, Fasana and Messina — both members of the LA County City Selection Committee — fought to block Najarian’s confirmation to the board after he was unanimously nominated to the North County Cities Seat, which also represents the communities of San Fernando, Malibu, Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Hidden Hills, Santa Clarita, Lancaster and Palmdale. All told, Najarian represented 1 million people living in this region during his time on the MTA board.
Fasana did not return calls for comment.
Messina called Najarian “a big crybaby” for complaining about the vote against him.
“I don’t have a problem with someone having an opposing opinion. There was no lobbying before the vote or the meeting, but we definitely have not been thrilled with Mr. Najarian,” Messina said.
“It’s not just the 710 either,” continued Messina. “He takes it to the next level, to the point where he is really ridiculous and just wants to muddy the water. We are in the middle of an EIR process, and all of his questions will be answered when the report is done. There was no lobbying before the meeting. He’s just a big crybaby.”
Several other area politicians representing constituents in areas affected by the unfinished freeway are for the tunnel, including Supervisor Gloria Molina. Also a member of the MTA board, Molina wrote to a constituent in August that she would support the tunnel as long as it could be built safely without demolishing homes.
“If the 710 Freeway extension is built underground and it can be constructed safely with minor environmental impacts, I am open to it,” she wrote. “I will not support 710 Freeway construction if it cannot be accomplished safely, nor will I support it if it requires mass demolition of homes — as was required when freeways throughout Los Angeles County were constructed in decades past.”
However, Molina continued, “an incomplete 710 Freeway further pollutes the already dirty air breathed by millions of children living south of Alhambra along the highway route, and their health matters too much for us to do nothing.”
The 13-member MTA board consists of the mayor of the city of LA, the five county supervisors, the mayor’s respective appointments, city council members from communities most affected by the mass transit system and one non-voting appointment of the governor. Council members are chosen to serve on the MTA board by representatives from the four regions, and Najarian was nominated by all 12 representatives from his region.
However, when the time came for approval by the county City Selection Committee, comprised of mayors of the county’s 88 cities who cast weighted votes based on population size, Najarian finished 10 votes short of the simple majority needed for confirmation. Most of those “no” votes came from the San Gabriel Valley region, which is represented on the MTA board by Fasana.
Najarian told the Weekly he would seek nomination again in January and have his name placed on the MTA board agenda for its Feb. 7 meeting.
“In the past, this had been a routine matter,” Najarian said. “The representatives in my cities are very angry at the other cities for interfering with the selection. This is an attempt by the supporters of the project to gain two seats in the San Gabriel Valley.”
Najarian is calling for full accountability on the tunnel project and demands that all costs be revealed before any decisions are made, demands that have garnered him the support of a growing “No on 710” movement.
“Najarian has been the lone MTA board member insisting on accountability in the SR-710 Study process,” states the No on 710 Action Committee Web site. “The move by officials outside his representative sector calls into question the power of one sector to override the will and vote of another. The No 710 Action Committee strongly condemns Fasana and Messina for attempting to circumvent the rights and silence the voices of constituent sector cities that unanimously chose Najarian to represent them on the Metro Board of Directors. The committee also calls for further investigation of this matter.”
The 4.5-mile tunnel would connect Alhambra to Pasadena at the end of the 710 and exit near Huntington Hospital, close to the hundreds of homes seized by Caltrans through eminent domain more than 50 years ago, when the state intended to create a surface connection between the highways.
Earlier this year, residents of affluent West Pasadena rallied to combat plans to build the tunnel under portions of Avenue 64, which would have meant the destruction of hundreds of homes and brought cargo truck traffic and its ensuing air pollution through that part of town. The MTA took that plan off the table after nearby communities, including Glendale and La Cañada Flintridge, joined in that fight.
After community pressure forced the MTA to take the neighborhood option off the table, residents vowed they would stay in the battle until the project was completely defeated. Three weeks ago, about 100 opponents of the project attended a Pasadena City Council meeting and called on the council to formally oppose the tunnel. Although the council voted 4-3 against the project, it failed to garner the five votes needed to formally oppose the project.
On Dec. 10, state Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, and Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, along with the mayors of South Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge and Glendale, sent a letter to Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, asking for criteria on the decision to reduce the 710 alternatives from 12 to 5. The letter asked why the state agency continues to own the more than 500 seized homes in Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno.
“We ask Caltrans to explain the basis for maintaining ownership of homes that are outside the footprint of any alternative being considered for the SR 710 [draft environmental impact report]. We also request the legal basis upon which MTA determined it was appropriate for properties to be sold when a locally preferred alternative was eliminated,” the letter states.