LA Daily News: Shuttered 10 Freeway will be open in time for Monday commute, officials announce

By Donna Littlejohn and Kristy Hutchings

An all-star cast of elected officials shared the news at daybreak: The fire-damaged 10 Freeway, shut down for more than a week, will be open for the Monday commute.

Vice President Kamala Harris, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Alex Padilla and Mayor Karen Bass gathered on Sunday morning, Nov. 19, to spread the word.

“Good morning Los Angeles, and this is a great day in our city,” Bass declared. The mayor praised Caltrans crews — and also commuters for their patience.

“This thing opens tonight and will be fully operational tomorrow,” said Newsom.

Permanent fixes to the lanes that serve about 300,000 vehicles a day, the governor said, will be made over the course of several weeks, “maybe a few months,” but that won’t impact the opening of five lanes in both directions, which he said would come in about eight hours following the news conference.

There will be some “episodic” closures along the mile-long stretch, mostly at night, going forward, he added. The Alameda Street offramp will take longer to fix and will remain closed for now.

“This is a significant and big day,” Newsom said.

The vice president praised the union workers who often put in “as many as 14 hours a day.”

Harris added: “It’s extraordinary work that happened here. Tomorrow the commute is back on — and happy Thanksgiving.”

That means the thoroughfare will be ahead of one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.

“The greatest thanks really goes to the contractors and laborers who have been working so hard and around the clock,” said Gloria Roberts, Caltrans District 7 director, who also thanked “the city of L.A. and Angelenos for their patience.”

Padilla said Angelenos “don’t have to wait for Thursday to give thanks for the opening — before the Thanksgiving holiday — of the 1-10 Freeway, for folks who are working this week, folks who’ll be traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday, and to give thanks to all the workers who made this possible. We can’t thank them enough.”

In the aftermath of last weekend’s intense overnight fire set off by wooden pallets burning beneath a roughly 450-foot span of the freeway overpass at the 1700 block of E. 14th Street last Saturday, officials feared the freeway could be out of commission for up to six months — then announced that the likely timetable for reopening would be 3-5 weeks.

The blaze spread swiftly, gobbling up tons of goods stacked in the acres of land under the sprawling freeway. Authorities on Saturday released photos and a description of a man they want to question in connection with the fire that damaged a part of the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles last weekend, and they are asking for the public’s help in identifying and locating him.

The man was described as being 30 to 35 years old and 6-feet tall, according to Cal Fire. He was seen on surveillance wearing a black hoodie, blue shorts, gray shoes and a green scarf with a knee brace on his right knee and a dark-colored backpack. Cal Fire officials also said his left leg may have been burned.

The investigation into the fire continues, in partnership with L.A. Fire Department and Caltrans. Results of the probe, Newsom said, would be released “as early as Wednesday.”

Officials’ original worst-case closing scenario could have came to fruition if the freeway overpass had been damaged enough to require that the structure be demolished and rebuilt.

After the initial gloomy projections, the cleanup moved into top gear. How was the swift opening possible? Newsom said Sunday: “It’s about dropping everything else.”

The governor added: “We had a date with destiny in terms of our internal timeline.” The push was to “beat those,” he said.

On Thursday, officials said ongoing chemical sampling revealed that the fire caused less structural damage to the overpass than previously thought.

“As a result, only seven rows of pillars under the elevated freeway are being shored up, only half of the 14 Caltrans had originally predicted,” Caltrans announced in a statement on Friday, referring to the columns that hold up the freeway.

Crews are currently working to strengthen the pillars with 100 tons of steel beams and 12-by-12-inch heavy wooden posts — enough to stretch over a mile if placed end-to-end, Caltrans added.

Those reinforcements are being installed using more than three dozen hydraulic jacks.

The contractors carrying out the repair work, Caltrans said, can now fit twice as many workers under the 10 Freeway overpass because there are fewer pillars to repair, which means more space under the overpass for the crews — another development that is helping to speed up the work.

Much of the work was possible only because contractors worked “around the clock,” to clear detritus and hazardous materials from beneath the overpass, Newsom said during a Thursday press conference.

About 264,000 cubic feet of material — enough to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools — was removed earlier this week, as well as two dozen burned vehicles.

That work was completed two days ahead of schedule.

Newsom, after the fire broke out last weekend, also proclaimed a state of emergency in L.A. County to expedite the 10 Freeway’s repairs.

The move essentially allowed local governments to access federal funding assistance quickly and helped speed up response times to handle the urgent crisis.

Shortly after Newsom’s declaration, Caltrans secured a $3 million funding pot from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration — which essentially offset the costs of the initial repair work on the freeway to ensure it got underway quickly.

The total cost of the freeway fix is still undetermined — but Newsom’s office has said the state expects the federal government to reimburse California for “nearly likely all costs.”

Padilla said the entire cost will be covered by federal funds, “thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed and signed a couple of years ago.” He estimated that the cost would be in the $3 million range, and Newsom later said it was “in the low millions.”

Newsom praised the workers and contracting company and said 10,000 hours of labor went into the effort to get the freeway open in eight days.

“It was a week or so ago that we were here, not knowing if we would be here at this moment announcing the reopening for six more months. We were talking about replacing this structure, we were talking about this historic fire that took out about roughly 100 columns — four or five particularly severely — we were talking about replacing a large portion of this freeway,” Newsom said.

“You can be assured of one thing: Safety first … it wasn’t just speed that we were after, we wanted to make sure this thing was safe,” the governor added.

The massive fire and subsequent shutdown of the mile-long stretch of Interstate 10 have taken their toll on businesses in the area. Some were forced to close, others were beset by gridlock on surrounding streets.

Bass also said meetings with business owners around the freeway as officials scramble to provide assistance.

“During this difficult time and beyond, my message is the same — Los Angeles stands with businesses,” the mayor said.

City Councilman Kevin de Leon is expected to announce on Monday the opening of a Business Resource Center to support those impacted by the 10 fire.

The councilman’s office has organized a press event that morning in collaboration with the Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District and various city departments to provide details on the support available to businesses impacted by the closure of the freeway between Alameda Street and the East Los Angeles interchange.

The opening of the resource center follows an emergency motion passed by the City Council last week that directed the Economic and Workforce Development Department to reach out to local businesses affected by the fire, the freeway closure and the associated street detours. The department was also tasked with helping to identify local, state and federal resources to mitigate the impact.

Officials have been aware of conditions under the freeway where the fire began for years.

State inspectors flagged fire hazards and other lease violations year after year at the site, yet Caltrans did not initiate the eviction process against the tenant until this August, 3 1/2 years after the company stopped paying rent, according to documents released last week.

Caltrans released a small portion of its inspection records late Friday as the “initial step” in a “thorough examination of its 600-plus Airspace leases at sites around highways statewide.” California’s airspace leasing program rents out state-owned land beneath freeways and bridges as a revenue source for mass transportation projects.

The state, at Newsom’s direction, is planning a “top-to-bottom” review that will inventory every airspace site, track its proximity to sensitive structures and other potential risks. Cal Fire and the Los Angeles Fire Department will jointly inspect the leased lands locally. The reviews will continue until Caltrans is “confident all lease sites comply with state and federal law and do not pose a safety risk” to the public or state infrastructure.

Aside from the structural repair work, Caltrans workers are also taking advantage of the 10 Freeway’s complete closure to complete a series of other maintenance upgrades, Newsom’s office said on Friday. They include sweeping; bridge railing and broken concrete repairs; drain and culvert cleaning; litter and overgrown vegetation removal; painting over graffiti; and sealing broken freeway access doors.

Bass said Metro ridership increased some 10% during the freeway closure, adding that she hoped many of those residents and workers will continue to make more use of public transportation going forward.

Los Angeles Metro staff, meanwhile, has also been directed by its board of directors — which includes Bass — to offer additional incentives for riders in the hope of encouraging folks to steer clear of the 10 Freeway repair area.

Those directives include a further reduced fare for riders enrolled in Metro’s LIFE (Low Income Fare is Easy) program, coordination with local jurisdictions to speed up trains and buses in the closure area, and an increase the number of “Transit Ambassadors’” on the system to assist riders.

Metro will also allow free use of its bike share system during the closure, and reduce daily parking rates at Metro Park and Ride lots.

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