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Upgrades on the Gravy Train

The Daily News had fun lately with the aftermath of the "triumphant" Riordan Far East junket.

The News found plenty of witnesses to several cases of upgrading the mayor's party's airline accommodations from business to first class. The upgraded included Mr. and Mrs. Riordan (though the mayor later claimed he'd paid these fares himself). Such upgrades don't happen all that often these days, unless you are someone somewhat special. Like a member of the Million Mile Club.Or the members of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission.

These officials had just done a ding-dong daddy of a deal with the company that owned the EVA airliner upon which they were flying. That's Evergreen, the titanic shipping entity that entered into the 32-year port-facility deal with the Los Angeles Harbor Department over which so much champagne was recently spilled in Taipei. As we noted last week.

There's a coincidental precedent for this sort of thing. And a surprising remedy. A century ago, politicians in California also got themselves some pretty cushy transportation deals, like automatic accommodation upgrades and real low fares on the Southern Pacific, the monopolistic railroad that everyone called the Octopus.

Unfortunately for the pols, this insider-benefits plan increasingly rankled the rest of the folks, who paid full ticket. It also tended to make it hard to get officeholders to vote for any regulations of the S.P. and other lines. So the very first Progressive reform was the statewide outlawing of public officials' literally getting a free ride. (See Article 12, Section 7, of the state constitution, which specifies that any official of the state or any of its divisions, including cities, is "subject to forfeiture of office" for any such transgression.) Are you listening, Harbor Commission president Leland Wong? How about you, Dan Lungren?

The 710 - a Transit Plan for 1949 It will cost well over a billion dollars, go all of six miles, and destroy three of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Southern California. Alternatively, it will speed up the rush-hour journey from Alhambra to Pasadena by about 16 minutes and bring lots more high-rolling spenders into both venues.

Depending on which side you talk to, that's what the maybe-someday-to-be-completed I-710 freeway extension will do. The fight over the 710 extension has been going on since 1964. And so far, not a single cubic inch of concrete has been laid north of Valley Boulevard, upon which the northbound artery unceremoniously dumps you after an unobstructed ride all the way from Long Beach.

This abrupt termination at the Alhambra-Los Angeles city line is often a source of frustration to motorists, a category that from time to time includes most of us. You've been plowing along for half an hour at 65-plus (actually, there was that bumper jam coming through South Gate and the big slowdown at the I-5 interchange) and, Powie! There's a potholed half-mile of stoplighted tertiary roadway before you even get to the three miles of Fremont Avenue that take you to the storied gates of the Crown City (d.b.a. Pasadena).

To motorists, then, the 710 extension is the missing link, the lost chord, the Ark of the Covenant of the Los Angeles freeway system. Nearly all the rest of our unique regional net of carways is finally there: The 105 is complete, the upper levels on the 110 are in place and operating, the last bumps from the quake breaks in the 10 have been ironed out.

Yet at the 710's dead end, drivers are subjected to the indignity of four or five miles of surface streets while trying to get from one freeway to another. It just isn't fair, a few dozen thousand commuters mutter for a few minutes each day.

From the point of view of the 4,000 or more people who live along or near the designated route that runs through El Sereno, South Pasadena and Pasadena, however, the delay is a noble thing: It has thus far averted the demolition of some of the most winsome and charming of the county's living environments. Even if you don't live there, these communities are fun to drive through and sightsee. Many who do live there took to the streets on a recent Saturday, marching from Pasadena to El Sereno to show their united opposition to the finished freeway.

The federal Department of Transportation is soon expected to give the extension its final green light. But last Thursday, the federal Advisory Council on Preservation voted to ask President Clinton to study the project further before proceeding. The fun will also soon begin in court, where several suits have already been filed.

But the 710 extension is one of those projects that have already outlived the world for which they were proposed. It was first laid across a map in 1949, first authorized 15 years later. But it has no place in the Los Angeles of 1998, with its ambitious pollution-abatement plans and its priorities for rapid transit. Ironically, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose Blue Line to Pasadena would, were it not on hold, bring fast, efficient rapid transit over much the same route, is now also compelled by state law to help fund the 710. But clearly, rail will get people downtown a lot faster. And whatever the MTA's problems getting the delayed rapid-rail project back online, building the Blue Line remains a higher priority for the MTA than completing the 710.

Given a Los Angeles mayor with just a tiny bit of vision and a sense of how to use his power, and the MTA spending nod would go to the Blue Line - which would probably cut the Valley-Fremont traffic as much as the freeway would, for a third of the price and with no further dislocations. We must remember to get ourselves such a mayor, someday.

There is also a new line of transportation thinking that actually contends that freeways cause traffic. Adherents of this heresy say that lack of freeways forces people to seek alternative transportation - like the Blue Line. They point out that both Manhattan's and San Francisco's urban environments have been improved by the demolition of major downtown expressways which turned many motorists into passengers. Eminent Reclaim, the Pasadena grassroots anti-710 group, cites Caltrans studies that say the completed 710 will increase traffic dramatically all over Pasadena - particularly in the minority northside areas. At Villa Street and Los Robles Avenue, for instance, the increase is predicted to be over 72 percent. At Villa and Altadena Drive, the traffic could go up 207 percent. Even where housing isn't demolished, the quality of life falls off the map after the freeway is built.

Sparing unique human landscapes such as north El Sereno, South Pasadena and southern Pasadena proper is worth the traffic delay. There was no such thing as an environmental-impact report when this route was first funded, because no one believed in 1964 that residents were more important than freeways. This is one of those things we've since learned the hard way. Just like we learned everyone should have an equal chance to vote, get educated and hold a job. Or that if you get 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will not necessarily follow.

There's an alternative to the 710 extension called the "Low-Build Option." It calls for completing the freeway's last remaining easement, to the industrial stretch of Mission Road - just another block. Let the motorist hardcore take its bit of extra time getting to Pasadena. And let the unbuilt 710 stub be a reminder that saving human habitat is more important than a dozen saved minutes. And More Triumphs

Last week was Los Angeles City Debt Week. Which merely means that the controller and chief administrative officer introduced reports as to how the city's revenues and obligations affect its ongoing financial-obligation situation.

The conclusions, as I understand them, suggest that the city's debt picture isn't quite as bad as certain members of the Elected Charter Commission would have you believe. But Controller Rick Tuttle pointed out that "since fiscal 1989, the city has more than doubled its debt." Tuttle added that the city should "adopt a formal debt policy . . . before we damage our current credit ratings, which are good."

The biggest sustained debt increase over the past nine years took place under none other than Mayor Richard Riordan. Between fiscal 1995 and fiscal 1997, the city's debt soared nearly 43 percent - an accomplishment for which our business-minded mayor has taken no credit.