July 12, 2013

Los Angeles Metro Transportation Authority’s expansion of I-405, which connects Los Angeles and San Diego, will be at least a year behind schedule, $100 million over budget and has generated hundreds of insurance claims from area residents.

Los Angeles Metro Transportation Authority’s expansion of I-405, which connects Los Angeles and San Diego, will be at least a year behind schedule, $100 million over budget and has generated hundreds of insurance claims from area residents.

This last point led L.A. County Supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky to tell Roads & Bridges in a telephone interview that the project’s contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure West, is taking no responsibility for the disruption and damage it has caused homeowners during the widening of Sepulveda Pass in the iconic expansion of the 405.

“They’ve seemed very unsympathetic and that can cost more than showing empathy for these people—so they will reap what they sow,” he said. “Finding out that this project is going to take another nine months to a year is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Claim culture
I-405 is the busiest and most congested freeway in the U.S., with an annual average daily traffic count reaching 374,000 in 2008—the highest in the nation. It also is a major icon of Los Angeles’ “car culture” and history, providing the backdrop for scenes in dozens of music videos and films as well as many notorious real-life episodes like the O.J. Simpson chase and surrender in 1994. Being essential to the city’s mobility and economy, many I-405 segments under construction had to be kept operating to protect business schedules and delivery routes, along with managing public safety.

Because work often starts in the middle of the night, goes on all day and disrupts residents’ schedules, patience is wearing thin. Property and peace of mind have been totally neglected by the contracting team, Yaroslavsky said, adding that Kiewit has an interest in rejecting these claims. It lacks credibility, he said, to tell residents, “We were jackhammering all night, but we didn’t cause the cracks in your walls,” he said. “Metro and I owe it to the property owners to do a fair and rigorous analysis of these claims.”

In a statement sent to Roads & Bridges, however, Kiewit disagreed with Yaroslavsky, and said its project team takes all claims very seriously.

“The interiors of hundreds of homes around the project area were photographed prior to construction to document any potential claims. All vibrations are monitored and evaluated by a geological engineer,” said Bob Kula, Kiewit vice president of communications. “An audit of this process is being conducted. We support this review, as it will demonstrate that every claim is thoroughly investigated and every homeowner is treated fairly.”

Nevertheless, community unrest, continued traffic congestion and construction mishaps have caused the project to be seen in Los Angeles as a “tragic comedy,” Yaroslavsky said.

“They put retaining walls up and then had to take them down. These screwups have resulted in a $100 million overrun. We had their assurance that this would be done by December, and now how sure can we be this will be done by June 2014?”

Kiewit said that in late 2011 certain components of some retaining walls on the project were structurally compromised due to quality issues with supplier materials.  

“We worked aggressively to repair the affected walls, which are now all fixed,” Kula said. “We take the quality of all of our construction work very seriously and made sure that this issue was addressed and did not delay the completion of the project.”

Staying aggressive
The delays, however, are starting to stir controversy and criticism of the project. Some community organizations and high-profile citizens who drive the 405 on a regular basis (like Tesla Motors’ founder Elon Musk) have called for offering incentives to the construction team to speed up the process.

“But we don’t have the money for that,” Yaroslavsky said. “Finding the money to pay for the overruns is going to be hard in the first place and it’s going to have to be worked out between MTA, the county and the contractor. You would have expected that they perform the due diligence in identifying those utility lines under Sepulveda Boulevard that caused so many problems; they didn’t even know they were there.”

This has been one of the troublesome aspects of the project with little relation to actual highway construction.  

“Most don’t understand that the I-405 project requires locating numerous complex and intertwined utilities before any highway work can begin,” Kiewit said.

Sepulveda Boulevard has been used as a utility corridor between the San Fernando Valley and the west side of Los Angeles for more than 60 years, leading to, in some cases, incomplete or inaccurate utility maps. Major utilities not relocated before the I-405 project began are now being addressed simultaneously as part of the project.

“These issues led to significant delays in the first three years of the project,” Kula told Roads & Bridges. “We anticipate finishing all utility relocation work on Sepulveda this year.”

Previously the project had been praised for brief closure times and excellent management of traffic flows and public safety. The project closures were anticipated in the city as “Carmaggedon”—a term Yaroslavsky said he invented—for the gridlock the city thought would be caused by closing one of its major freeways for days at a time. Disaster during these episodes, however, was largely avoided and the closures went smoothly.  

Kiewit said the schedule has been “aggressive,” with the complexity and scope of the project requiring multiple traffic changes and closures. Many were very successful—405 closures (Carmageddon I and II) opened much earlier than required, Bridge 10 and 11 demo and rebuild was completed 20 days earlier than required, the southbound 405 off-ramp at Wilshire opened in one week instead of the allowed two weeks, and the recent 405 northbound closure was completed 29 hours early.

Kudos for these successes, however, were not forthcoming from Yaroslavsky.

“The contractor and the subcontractors were under a lot of pressure; the world was watching and they responded. But addressing the public needs and its safety—keeping people and traffic off the surface streets and things like that—was the hard part of Carmaggedon, not the engineering,” Yaroslavsky said. “Once we shut it down for 48 hours and turned it over to the contractor they had the easy part.”

Despite all of the delays and added expenses, the I-405 project remains a worthwhile project and one that will benefit Los Angeles long-term.

“We corrected a lot of problems,” Yaroslavsky said. “The on-/off-ramps on Wilshire Boulevard made for one of the most dangerous interchanges in the country—the off-ramps were before the on-ramps so you had to cut in front of merging traffic to exit—and the bridges had to be fixed. Replacing the bridge over Sunset Boulevard and the off-/on-ramps on Wilshire Boulevard were very successful, but in this business it is not good enough to bat .300, you have to bat 1.000 or near 1.000.”

MTA remained optimistic that portions of the carpool lane would open this year, including a 2.5-mile section near the southern end of the freeway, and noted that new methods of construction have shaved years off the project, regardless of the current delay. The original completion date for the project was March 2013, but was revised with a December 2013 completion date and a cost of just less than $1 billion. R&B

About The Author: Zeman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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