Trying to build a $55-million second deck over the crowded Harbor Freeway is not easy under any circumstances, but when state engineers last week suggested that the vital roadway would have to be closed periodically during rush hour over the next two years, the forces of convenience, economics and safety collided.
The result was a political SigAlert, as Los Angeles city officials told California Department of Transportation engineers that they would not agree to shut down any part of the Harbor Freeway during daylight hours.
On Thursday, the standoff was resolved. In a compromise worked out in Mayor Tom Bradley's office, city officials said they will allow the work to go on during the day, while Caltrans agreed to scrap plans to close lanes during the day. Night lane closures are still expected at various times, officials said. Work is scheduled to begin at 5 a.m. Monday.
City officials said they first learned about Caltrans' plans to close the Harbor Freeway last week, the day before work on the Harbor Transitway Project, a double-decked bus and van roadway to be built over 2.6 miles of the existing freeway, was set to begin. The city protested that the lane closings, even for brief periods, could cause accidents and divert thousands of commuters onto surface streets.
Mayor Bradley said he was "alarmed when I first learned about the plan to stop traffic. . . . This plan was clearly unacceptable."
Protests from city transportation officials, the mayor's office and state Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) persuaded Caltrans to delay the road work and lane closings for a week.
Caltrans had scheduled the periodic closings during the day, the agency's Los Angeles district officials said, because foundation work for the upper level of the freeway is more inefficient and dangerous at night.
Highway traffic at night moves faster and drivers can be blinded by lights used during construction, Caltrans Deputy District Director Jack Hallin said. Construction crews--working on higher night-shift wage scales--also must move slower and under more adverse conditions, he said.
"We feel the daytime operations (are) much safer, it is easier to handle the job than at night. . . . It is also less expensive this way. It's a balancing act," Hallin said.
But in a strongly worded memo sent to Caltrans officials April 9, agency engineers working on the Harbor Freeway project warned that the daytime construction work could cause safety hazards and "create havoc with freeway traffic."
In the memo, obtained by The Times, the engineers said "a major incident" would result if one of the big steel casings or steel cages being installed by cranes accidentally falls across traffic lanes. They advised that work should only be done between midnight and 5 a.m.
Their objections, however, were overridden by Caltrans district officials.
City officials said they knew nothing of these objections, and Waters claimed that Caltrans had kept the controversial plan under wraps. She said she learned about it only through "the underground."
Caltrans officials replied that the state, not the city, is empowered to decide when and how the highway work is to be done.
Bradley also accused Caltrans of secrecy and said the city will closely monitor the impact of the freeway work over the next week. If there are problems, he said, officials will push for other action.
Several city officials also warned that a massive traffic jam or a serious construction accident on the freeway--which carries 230,000 cars a day--could hurt bipartisan efforts to pass Proposition 111, the gas tax initiative that will raise $18.5 billion for sorely needed transit projects.
Engineers and city officials said they expect heavy traffic congestion and delays to start near the project at 5 a.m.
The two lanes that Caltrans plans to build over the freeway will run from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard south to Slauson Avenue and tie into a new 10-mile transitway used solely by buses and vans.
Workers will install 50 Y-shaped towers over the existing freeway. Crews will first drill foundation holes into the freeway, then insert 80-foot-long steel casing forms and 70-ton cages of reinforced steel. The work will be performed by two massive cranes that will hoist the steel casings and the steel cages. As the concrete is poured, the cranes will then lift the casings back out.
Engineers say the process will take two days. Once the long row of foundations is in place, crews will begin forming and pouring the Y-shaped pillars. They will then install the framework of the upper level and pour the two-lane wide traffic lanes.
Meanwhile, city officials are urging Caltrans to carry on an extensive publicity campaign to alert the public to the roadwork.
"Once the newness settles out, some traffic will choose other routes," said Thomas K. Conner, city Department of Transportation assistant general manager. "Hopefully things will then return to somewhat normal on the freeway . . . but congestion will increase on other routes."