Can A Freeway Expansion Improve Public Health?

A draft environmental impact report about an expansion to the Los Angeles basin's 710 freeway was issued last month. (DeanTerry: Flickr)

A draft environmental impact report about an expansion to the Los Angeles basin's 710 freeway was issued last month. (DeanTerry: Flickr)

Caltrans issued its draft environmental impact report on a major freeway project in Los Angeles — the 710 expansion. The freeway currently stretches 25 miles freeway from East Los Angeles to Long Beach, but is commonly chokes with traffic of both people and goods. As Bernice Yeung at California Watch reports, Caltrans asserts the expansion could improve public health. As Yeung details:

“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.

Maybe improving congestion can reduce pollution and improve public health, but community activists and longtime researchers are not so sure.

In her piece, Yeung delves into the background of the project. There are several possible iterations of the 710 expansion on the table, ranging from adding 10 lanes all the way down to “no-build” — where the existing freeway is improved, but no lanes are added.

The problem with the draft environmental impact report (EIR), say public health experts, is lack of clarity. It’s hard to understand exactly why air quality is supposed to improve.

“The draft EIR 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.”

Public hearings about the draft EIR will run next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

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