Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
The eight-mile Arroyo Seco Parkway –- aka the Pasadena Freeway or SR-110 –- is getting a $17-million facelift.

The First Freeway Gets a Facelift
by  Kelly Markham
Issue Date: 12/2009

Construction began in November on the Arroyo Seco Parkway (SR-110) Improvement Project, which will enhance safety and improve the appearance of the historic freeway.

In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, Gone with the Wind picked up eight Academy Awards, Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” was at the top of the charts, and gas cost 18 cents a gallon. It was also the year that the Arroyo Seco Parkway (also known as the Pasadena Freeway, or SR-110) opened, its eight miles of graceful curves launching the modern freeway system.

At the time, this stretch of road was on the cutting edge of transportation engineering, allowing motorists to travel at speeds up to 40 miles per hour – gasp! – on a divided roadway all the way from Pasadena to Downtown Los Angeles without stopping. Named a National Scenic Byway in 2002 by the Federal Highway Administration, SR-110 is recognized as the first freeway in the Western United States. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) designated it a national historic civil engineering landmark in 1999.

When you drive the Arroyo Seco Parkway, its origin in another era is immediately apparent. The narrow lanes, absent shoulders, truncated ramps and Art Deco tunnels reveal its age even to those who know nothing of its history. Geographic limitations have prevented major modifications – there’s no way to add or widen lanes – and the California State Historic Preservation Office must approve even minor alterations. But that hasn’t stopped Caltrans from looking for ways to improve it. And now, 70 years after it first opened, the first freeway is getting a facelift.

In November, District 7 began the Arroyo Seco Parkway Improvement Project. The $17-million project will replace the existing metal beam and temporary barriers with decorative concrete median and side barriers that reflect the stonework architecture seen throughout the surrounding communities. A three- to four-foot fence will be placed on top of the side barriers to limit access. Existing lighting will be replaced with historic reproduction lighting. Cooper/Myers, a Joint Venture, is the contractor.

“We were looking for a context-sensitive solution in keeping with the historic character of the facility,” said Senior Transportation Engineer Greg Damico, part of the design team. “We ran the treatments by a constituent advisory group made up of representatives from the cities and preservation groups to get feedback and refine it before sending it to the Historic Preservation Office. It’s certainly going to be more aesthetically pleasing.”

Not only will SR-110 look better, the project will enhance safety, reduce maintenance costs and reduce exposure of District 7 maintenance workers to traffic. Given the increase in traffic volume on the freeway due to regional economic and population growth, these enhancements are vital. When the project wraps up in fall 2011, the pioneering parkway constructed in the last century will better serve the needs of today’s motorists while preserving its historic character and the vision of those who built it.

Considered the first freeway in the Western U.S., the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened in 1940, connecting Pasadena to Downtown Los Angeles. When the freeway opened 70 years ago, cars (and motorcycles) could travel on it at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, which was considered fast by 1940 standards. The project will replace the existing metal beam and temporary barriers with decorative concrete barriers and install historic reproduction lighting.