Bait and Switch: Caltrans and Metro Quietly Scale Back 71 Freeway Widening in Pomona
This week, Metro revealed new details about the under-construction widening of the 71 Freeway in the city of Pomona. Metro and Caltrans had promoted the project as a nearly 2-mile-long freeway widening, with an upgraded pedestrian overcrossing – but it has been quietly scaled back to a ~1.5-mile widening with no pedestrian component.
For decades, Metro and Caltrans planned to convert State Route 71 from an Expressway to a Freeway – meaning expanding the current four-lane configuration to eight lanes. Caltrans terms the result “a cleaner and more sustainable travel network for the future” because two of the four new lanes will be HOV lanes. SR-71 expansion didn’t get off the ground until Metro came up with funding. Specifically, Metro’s Measure M sales tax expenditure plan programmed $248.5 million for the project. Metro also sought and received a $43 million grant from the state’s Trade Corridor Enhancement Program (TCEP) which is funded via S.B. 1 gas tax revenues.
In 2017, Metro and Caltrans split the ~4-mile 71 Freeway project into two ~2-mile-long segments, north and south of Mission Boulevard.
Construction kicked off in June 2021 on an initial $174+ million (and growing) Southern Segment. That phase 1 is now anticipated to be completed in 2025. Prior to construction, Caltrans and Metro relocated a couple dozen families from their homes to make way for the widened 71.
Next comes the Northern Segment. The timeline is not yet clear for that future phase, which, according to a Metro presentation this week, is facing a project funding shortfall of “up to $99 million” with “significant cost increases and potential schedule delays.”
What is causing that future Northern Segment funding shortfall?
Metro’s presentation states that utility and railroad coordination are causing delays. It also appears that portions of the project that had been included in the Southern Segment have been pushed back into the future Northern Segment.
In 2018, when Metro received TCEP funding for the Southern Segment, Metro’s project description included replacing an existing pedestrian bridge located a half-dozen blocks south of Mission.
Since the Caltrans 2002 Project Report the 71 Freeway project includes tearing down the existing Grier Street Pedestrian Overcrossing and replacing it with a new longer pedestrian bridge, to be located one block north at 9th Street. The pedestrian overcrossing allows students living east of the freeway to walk to Westmont Elementary School. The existing ~100-foot-long freeway span is too short to accommodate Metro and Caltrans’ planned 8-lane freeway underneath.
This week’s Metro presentation showed that the pedestrian bridge replacement, located south of Mission, is now part of the second phase of the project, located north of Mission.
(Added 3/3: This is confusing – so, to clarify: the pedestrian bridge location is not moving; it still will be at 9th Street. What moved is the line between phase 1 and 2; that was Mission Boulevard, now it’s near Phillips Drive.)
Streetsblog initially thought this shift might be an error or a typo in the Metro presentation, but spokespersons for both Metro and Caltrans confirmed it. In an email to Streetsblog, Caltrans District 7 Public Affairs Officer Peter Jones stated that “The widening of the roadway in the current SR-71 Segment 1 project ends south of the POC [pedestrian overcrossing] so it is not included in the current construction project.” Further Jones confirmed that “The POC at 9th Street will be removed and replaced in the future SR-71 Segment 2 project.”
The under-construction Southern Segment was billed as 1.8 miles long (by Metro in 2021 – during construction) or almost two miles long (by the contractor) from Rio Rancho Road to Mission Boulevard. But the new information shared this week “Segment 1 project ends south of the POC” appears to mean that the under-construction phase has been shortened to under 1.5 miles. The current 71 widening won’t quite extend from one onramp (Rio Rancho) to the next off-ramp (Mission). In effect the current construction might be characterized as a freeway to nowhere. Drivers should expect to be frustrated when their new 8-lane roadway slims back down to four lanes, just south of the Grier Street bridge.
Metro and Caltrans were eager to get some 71 Freeway widening underway, whether it made things better for drivers (whether the segment under construction had what is known as “independent utility”) or not. Perhaps that’s the point. Frustrated drivers are putting up with years of construction which will only result in a serious bottleneck. Those drivers will complain to their elected leaders to do something about congestion; officials will push for Metro and Caltrans to keep on widening on and on.
This week’s reveal of the quiet backpedaling points to Metro and Caltrans unwillingness to disseminate clear project information to the public, and their willingness to jettison projects’ pedestrian features, even ones they touted to sell projects to state funders.