Caltrans once again intends to sell surplus property seized more than a half-century ago to make way for an extension of the 710 (Long Beach) Freeway to the 210 (Foothill) Freeway.  

However, Caltrans and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) will retain the subterranean rights to those properties in order to build a proposed dual-bore tunnel, one with lanes going in each direction, from where the 710 ends in Alhambra to western Pasadena.   

Residents were advised of the decision in an Aug. 9 letter.

“This is to advise you that the California Department of Transportation has completed the final Environmental Impact Report for the SR 710 Surplus Property Sales in the cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena and in the El Sereno area of the city of Los Angeles,” the document states. “The preferred alternative includes selling the 460 properties over a 5-year period and retaining subsurface easement rights.” 

Those easement rights will allow Caltrans and Metro to build a tunnel underneath the property. Officials with Metro have said they want to dig a two-way tunnel — at an estimated cost of between $3.2 billion and $5.6 billion — which would begin from where the 710 Freeway ends at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra and continue 6.3 miles underneath nearby El Sereno, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, South Pasadena and Pasadena to connect at the nexus of the 134 (Ventura) Freeway and the 210.

“I was kind of shocked. This means the tunnel may never go away for another 40 years, just like the surface option took years to go away,” said Joanne Nuckols, a leader in the city of South Pasadena’s successful decades-long battle against the proposed surface connector route. 

“Several of us were told in the past by Caltrans that they were not going to keep any subsurface rights. We kind of assumed they would, but we were told they weren’t. We sort of missed that in the EIR, because it was a huge document. We assumed they were going to follow through. People living over this tunnel won’t be able to get insurance. I have talked to my insurance and they said they will not cover it.”

According to the Caltrans website, 42 properties could go on sale this fall. The list includes three Pasadena properties — two located in the 200 block of Waverly Drive and one on Havendale Drive. Thirty-three properties are located in South Pasadena and six are in El Sereno. 

Chris Sutton, an attorney representing several residents currently renting homes from Caltrans, said he remained skeptical about the agency putting the homes on the market.

“They have made this announcement many times in the past and haven’t followed through,” Sutton said. “Caltrans announced in 2012, 2013 and 2015 that the houses would be sold, but never put them on the market.” 

Homeowners in the area have long opposed the extension and have fought to stop it. In 2012, after the surface option was taken off the table, Metro and Caltrans officials said they wanted to build either a six-lane highway along portions of Avenue 64 or a tunnel beneath the street, both of which meant the destruction of hundreds of area homes.

The street-widening plan was taken off the table shortly after more than 500 people and members of the Pasadena City Council voiced their disapproval to transit officials at a special meeting held at the Pasadena Convention Center.

The controversial project is opposed by some area cities, including Pasadena, South Pasadena, Glendale and La Cañada Flintridge. However, the tunnel proposal is supported by cities in the eastern part of the San Gabriel Valley, including San Gabriel, San Marino Alhambra and Monterey Park. Officials in those communities have long supported the extension — above or below ground — saying it would alleviate air and noise pollution, which they say is caused by cars idling and increased traffic as cars use surface streets to get to their destinations because the freeway is unfinished. Those same officials claim pollutants generated by traffic and idling motors are responsible for an increase in asthma-related illnesses in those communities.

As for the homes, “I think at this point people are ready to buy their homes,” said Roberto Flores, a member of the United Caltrans Tenant Association. “Our goal has always been to keep everybody in their homes. That is still our goal and we are happy we have turned the corner on the sales process. The easement rights are important and we can fight to stop that, which is what I think we should do.”

“It’s a whole big mess that continues this mess that has been going on for 40 years,” Nuckols said.

The homes are being sold under three phases. Phase 1 includes the sale of 42 homes and 11 others that are not within the scope of the remaining project alternatives. 

In Phase 2, Caltrans will make a decision to sell some of the other properties that fall within the scope of the proposed project. Remaining properties deemed as surplus after the project is either built or formally denied will be sold as part of Phase 3. 

Caltrans has long been considered an absentee landlord, with a 2012 audit showing the agency mismanaged the properties in question and the money associated with them. 

The California State Auditor found that between July 2007 and December 2011 Caltrans, which did not verify the eligibility of tenants to be charged below-market rate rents, collected $12.8 million in rent but lost $22 million due to underpayment by ineligible tenants. During most of that period, Caltrans reportedly paid out another $22.5 million for questionable repairs and spent an average of $6.4 million per year on property repairs but could not demonstrate that repairs for 18 of the 30 projects reviewed by auditors were reasonable or even necessary. 

Six months after the audit’s release, Caltrans began increasing rents by 10 percent every six months, until people were paying market-value rents on the homes.

The rent increases have left some families unable to afford the homes. 

“Every family is in a unique situation and we need to get everybody in a category where they can buy or they can continue to rent,” said Flores. “We fought for these options and I think 90 percent of the people are going to end up in one of these categories. Some of the people could fall through these cracks and that’s who we need to be worried about.”