The plan to build a tunnel underneath Sequoyah, by state transportation department Caltrans, which owns the campus, was raised recently at a debate of candidates running for the LA County Board of Supervisors, reminding the school community of the possibility that a tunnel might be dug underneath the school. The plan is still to connect the 710 and the 210 freeways (known as the 710 Gap), although no one is sure when. Sequoyah administrators continue to attend public meetings held by Caltrans and local officials, where the administrators argue against the tunnel project.
If the tunnel is built, trucks and cars would be constantly dashing beneath the school. Big trucks delivering goods from cargo ships at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports would use the 710 freeway to get to Pasadena and points north. Official reports disagree about the environmental and health effects of that traffic.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SQAQMD) says that the environmental impact report prepared for the project (known as an “EIR”) underestimated the risks to Pasadena residents’ health of particulates from diesel truck traffic. According to the plan, ventilation towers sticking out of the ground in Old Town would suck up these particles from the tunnel and blow them into the air. Caltrans believes the cancer risk of the exhaust is minimal. However, not only the SQAQMD but also the federal Environmental Protection Agency says the EIR is inadequate. Studies by USC have showed that children who live or are constantly near freeways have an increased risk of asthma and cancer.
Currently, the 710 freeway starts in Long Beach and dead ends at Valley Boulevard in El Sereno. To reach the 210 freeway, drivers have to take surface streets through the neighborhoods of El Sereno, Alhambra, South Pasadena, and Pasadena.
Blocked by local opposition from building a freeway above ground, which would destroy homes and businesses, Caltrans revised the plan to include the tunnel. Some studies by experts say the tunnel will improve traffic, while others say it will not. Neighborhoods that have traffic problems caused by the 710, like Alhambra, favor the tunnel, while others, like Pasadena, oppose it. At the first public hearing on the issue, held in early 2015, a majority of the 51 speakers favored building the tunnel.
Cost estimates for the tunnel range from $3.2 billion to an astonishing $14 billion. This price tag has earned the project the dubious distinction of second on a list of the 12 biggest highway boondoggles in the country, compiled by liberal non-profit consumer group U.S. PIRG. Taxpayers and drivers who pay a toll to use the tunnel would be the source of funding for the tunnel construction.
Aside from the pollution created by the tunnel itself, some residents of the local area, including Sequoyah, object to the effects of the construction project required to build it. Tunnel boring machines would probably cause vibrations in school buildings and blow dust on to the school’s campus. After its completion, there is a chance that a dangerous accident could happen underneath the school, like the truck fire that melted a tunnel on the I-5 freeway in 2007.
Luckily, none of Sequoyah’s buildings will be torn down, tunnel or no tunnel, because they are protected by their historic status. Caltrans currently owns the land Sequoyah is on, but if the tunnel never gets built, they may put the land up for sale, creating an opportunity for the school to finally own its campus.
Elena Phleger, Sequoyah’s Director of Development and Communications, who attended the first public hearing, said that the school’s goal was not only to fight the project, but to be “ready for any case.” The school’s goal, she said, is “to protect the school’s campus and safeguard the community’s health and welfare as best we can.” She noted that the school can advocate not only by participating in the public events but also by “making sure our situation is well known by those who can advocate effectively for us.”