CalTrans offers grant to study freeway conversion in Long Beach

By Chris McCahill

Thanks to a quarter million dollar environmental justice grant from the California Department of Transportation, the City of Long Beach will now be able to study options for turning its Terminal Island Freeway into a local street, reclaiming 88 acres of land for a network of parks, and improving public health. The CalTrans award calls the plan “a rare opportunity to coordinate replacing an underutilized freeway while mitigating pollution impacts to address long-standing community health concerns.” The grant is expected to take effect in early 2014 and support a multi-year study of the corridor. If completed, this project would not be the first large freeway removal in the country, nor is it the only one being considered, but it would be the largest in southern California’s history.

The freeway trunk (I-103) was once an important freight route serving the Port of Long Beach. Now that alternative routes have opened up and truck traffic has dropped, city officials believe the road may no longer be needed to serve freight traffic. They see the benefits of improving street network connections for neighborhoods to its east, while mitigating the impact of pollution and noise. City Fabrick—a local nonprofit design studio and key player in the process—has proposed turning a large portion of land into park space and creating a buffer for industrial uses to the west.

Brian Ulaszewski, the Executive Director of City Fabrick, offered lessons for other communities interested in pursuing similar projects:

As bold as this initiative has been it is based on practicalities; removing this segment of the Terminal Island Freeway has the capacity to improve traffic flow, reduce public health impacts from freight movement, and yield a substantial community benefit in the way of a mile-long park. This is the second attempt to compete for the Caltrans grant, the first being unsuccessful. The second, successful application had more engaged stakeholders, was clearer about the project intent and was grounded in adopted policy.

He references policies such as the Mobility Element of the Long Beach General Plan, which was updated in July and calls for increasing neighborhood connectivity around the freeway, while downplaying its role as a freight route. Ultimately, says Ulaszewski, all the work that’s already been done building support from more than two dozen groups—including residents, government agencies, port stakeholders, and various advocacy organizations—will make things much easier for Caltrans as the planning process moves forward.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.