Plans to widen freeway delayed over home removal plan

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

DOWNEY — A plan to widen the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway could bulldoze up to 257 homes in Downey, as part of the corridor improvement project designed to improve traffic flow near the junction with the Santa Ana (5) Freeway by adding two lanes in each direction.

The plan’s release has been postponed until 2021, due to searing criticism from both the Downey City Council and community members, who said the plan relies on homes destruction in times of greater need to preserve the available housing stock, which would cause displacement and worsen air pollution.

Downey officials have balked at the I-605 Corridor Improvement Project, submitted by the state Department of Transportation in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and requested an overhaul of the initial environmental impact report that calls for the removal of houses along the San Gabriel River Channel.

In addition, the widening proposal calls for purchasing and demolition of up to 385 homes along the 605 from Bellflower to El Monte at the junctions of the Glenn Anderson (105), Pomona (60) and San Bernardino freeways. The overall project calls for the taking of 41 houses in Santa Fe Springs and 19 more in Norwalk, in addition to 257 in Downey.

A document prepared by the Gateway Cities Council of Governments and released on Aug. 26, indicates that eminent domain and acquisitions would not be declared until 2025 and only if the funds to purchase the properties are available.

In the beginning, Downey backed the plan to ease traffic logjams and bring relief to hot spots along the freeways, but rejected the idea once it saw how many houses would be lost, according to Mayor Blanca Pacheco.

“The city is supportive of the improvements of the I-5 Freeway, which will bring transportation, connectivity and economic benefits to Downey,” Pacheco said in a statement. “However, we cannot support an alternative that will negatively impact hundreds of homes in our community.”

Homes in Pico Rivera and Whittier also could be taken if the freeway widening plans are ultimately approved as well as in unincorporated areas of Rose Hills, West Whittier and Los Nietos.

Downey City Councilwoman Claudia Frometa, who is also vice chair of the I-5 Joint Powers Authority board, said that “the city will continue to work with local agencies and [the MTA] to make sure the best interest of our residents are met and negative impacts to our communities are minimized.”

Currently, the environmental impact report is the only funded segment for the $10-billion Corridor Improvement Project. On Oct. 22, the MTA Board of Directors approved by unanimous vote a resolution to postpone the plan until the study addresses concerns to minimize the number of homes that could be destroyed.

Downey resident Alexandria Contreras said in an interview with KCRW’s “Greater LA” that the bulk of targeted homes lie northeast of the 5 Freeway, and belong to less affluent Latino families, many who moved in search of a place less impacted by aging and noisy freeways such as those in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.

She said the freeway expansion project amounts to racial injustice because only a few homes near the southbound lanes, or abutting its soundwall in the same three-mile stretch, would be affected in a neighborhood where individual properties are valued in the millions of dollars, and their owners are whiter.

A map released by the MTA shows seven chunks in red north of the 5 freeway along Brookpark Road marked for possible destruction, whereas the south shoulder on Vista del Rio Drive has thin lines drawn for widening.

A continuous critic of local government policies, Contreras ran for Downey’s First District city council seat on Nov. 3 and lost to incumbent Pacheco. She accused the current leadership on her Facebook portal of being hypocritical on the freeways widening plan.

“I’m getting real tired of the city of Downey acting like they are opposed to this project in its entirety, when the reality is they are OK with it,” Contreras wrote. “The amount of homes lost to a freeway expansion should be zero.”

Currently, the 5 Freeway has four lanes in each direction west of the 605. The freeway is currently being widened to five lanes east of the 605.

Current plans call for the 5 Freeway to be widened eventually to five lanes in each direction all the way to the Long Beach (710) Freeway in Commerce.

MTA Communications manager Brian Haas said that the first environmental draft may be finished between February and April, and that the initial period for public comments scheduled was canceled because of the delayed release of the report.

Haas said that community support is needed to move forward with the preliminary freeway widening blueprint, and that the MTA will be forced to drop the current plans and redraw a different approach if residents and stakeholders continue to reject its proposal.

“Our job is to come up with a plan for how to fix this problem,” Haas said. “There are segments of the 605 project that are not working. We have to present this study to the neighbors and gather their comments. If they say this is not acceptable, we will go back to the drawing board.

“There is no point in showing projects that don’t have the community support.”

The MTA did not pick expansion sites based on property values or wealth of residents, because it was drawn by engineers unaware of socioeconomic conditions, Haas said.

A related MTA website said the environmental study was funded through Measure R with local sales taxes, and that the agency “will pursue additional federal, state and other sources for future phases of the project.”

The proposal offers three new traffic alternatives that would increase and decrease lane availability to heavy trucks and cars during peak times, but also accounts for zero home purchases if the project fails.