Erick Yanez, who was raised in Boyle Heights but now lives in Alhambra, often takes the 710 Freeway on his frequent trips between the neighboring cities. When he heard that the 710 Corridor Expansion Project would add more lanes to the highway, he was hesitant to support it even if its goal was to reduce the congestion endured by drivers like him. 

“My immediate concern is the displacement of all residents that would be impacted by an expansion of that nature,” said Yanez, adding that his aversion to the expansion project stems from multiple concerns.

“If we’re having to react to COVID being a health crisis, what’s the difference between that and having exhaust fumes in that way that affects you?”, he questioned. 

Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles are notoriously surrounded by highways. It would be hard to walk around the neighborhood and not run into one of five– the 5, 10, 60, 101 or 710.  

Despite two decades of planning, the proposal to add additional lanes to the 710 freeway has been abandoned, killed by unanimous vote from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) in May. The project had raised many concerns for residents of the Eastside communities it passes through, such as Boyle Heights and East LA. They worried about its contribution to poor respiratory health and, more recently, a higher COVID-19 mortality rate in these communities.

The 710 Corridor Expansion Project was placed on hold in March of 2021 because of its violations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guidelines.In a lenghty letter written by the EPA to Metro and the California Department of Transportation, the federal agency said it could not allow the project to continue because the highway already carries approximately 50,000 diesel-fueled freight trucks and 165,000 other vehicles every day through many communities. It was expected that the project would add an additional 6,900 heavy-duty diesel trucks onto the road. 

A 2021 study by scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles, Berkeley and Merced concluded that communities in LA County with higher car pollution have greater COVID-19 fatality and hospitalization rates. The study reported a 31.2% increase in the mortality rate for areas in LA County with higher levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air, part of what’s known as particulate matter (PM) pollution. The impacted communities, similar to Boyle Heights and East LA, are for the most part majority Black and/or Latinx.

A truck on the 10 Freeway in Boyle Heights. Photo by Adrian Casillas-Sáenz.

Metro’s board of directors voted to end the expansion effort and proposed investing the estimated $750 million in local sales tax funds that would have been used for the project back into the communities surrounding the 710. 

Those communities had been fighting against the project long before Metro’s proposal. East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCJ), a community-based organization at the forefront of the opposition, proposed a Community Alternative 7 campaign as an “alternative vision of how goods movement projects, like the I-710 Corridor Project, can protect community health, improve quality of life, improve air quality, and effectively and safely plan for the region’s goods movement growth.”

Erick Huerta, a 39-year-old, long-time Boyle Heights resident and media organizer for EYCEJ, said the expansion project would not have been as easy to implement as authorities made it seem.

Metro and Caltrans originally argued that this project was not of environmental concern and did not need a PM hot spot analysis, which measures the amount of chemicals small enough to enter the respiratory tract. They argued it was not necessary because part of the plan was the implementation of the Clean Truck Program, which had the goal of deploying 4,000 Net Zero Emission trucks by 2035.

“There’s not enough money to pay the truckers what they need to pay for converting their life savings that they invested in the diesel truck, to an electric truck… that’s why there has to be a just transition, there have to be resources and help (so that) people make the shift that we’re trying to ask them to do.”

ACTIVIST ERICK HUERTA

“There’s not enough money to pay the truckers what they need to pay for converting their life savings that they invested in the diesel truck, to an electric truck,” said Huerta. “So that’s why there has to be a just transition, there have to be resources and help (so that) people make the shift that we’re trying to ask them to do. Because for them to carry that cost by themselves is ridiculous.”

The transition to Net Zero Emission trucks was not the only issue with this project. The larger problem, related to all freeways, is the large amount of pollution emitted by the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that go through the neighborhood every day. 

Seventy-year-old Patricia Watson, who was born in Boyle Heights and has come back to retire, recalled how this has been the case for much of the neighborhood’s history. 

“When I left here 40 years ago, my eyes used to water whenever I came through this area,” Watson said.

She added that she didn’t notice the difference until she moved to Bellingham, a city north of Seattle, in the 60s. “My oldest was really sick in this area with asthma and when we moved to the Northwest it went away. We just thought [the asthma] was normal.”

A truck on a freeway overpass in East Los Angeles. Photo by Adrian Casillas-Sáenz.

The disparity in air quality can be traced back to discriminatory mortgage appraisal practices in the 1930s known as redlining. The term comes from the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s classification for neighborhoods in cities across the U.S that were considered undesirable for loans, largely because of the mostly non-white populations that lived there. Neighborhoods were ranked from A-D based on this desirability; Boyle Heights was given a D grade.

Recent research published by the Environmental Science and Technology Letters has demonstrated how 80% of communities historically designated a D grade have a higher nitrogen dioxide pollution rate in the present. In contrast, 84% of communities with an A-grade have lower rates of air pollution in the present.

Watson, the woman who returned to Boyle Heights, said that unlike today, many residents of the past felt as though they had no power to put an end to the freeways’ harm. Watson described that her mother, who was of Mexican descent, would tell her, “Do you want to fit in or not? Do what the Americans do. Life will be much easier.”

In contrast, Huerta, the younger activist, takes a more proactive stand.

“All these decisions that are made for us–we have either no awareness of it to influence them, or we are aware of them and we’re fighting back, to push them to change to something better.” he said.

“We’re going to fight you, we’re going to protest, we’re going to organize.” 

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