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State to Retrofit Bridges Faster : Freeways: Collapse of six major roadways in Northridge earthquake prompts the acceleration. Most of the structures at risk are in L.A. area and Southland.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jolted by the collapse of six major roadways in the Northridge earthquake, the Wilson Administration is preparing to order a major acceleration of its slow-moving seismic retrofitting program, pushing ahead by at least a year the strengthening of the state’s most vulnerable bridges.

Dean Dunphy, secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, confirmed that he plans to announce today in Los Angeles a four-pronged plan to speed up work so that the strengthening of 1,000 top-priority bridges would be completed by late 1995.

Most of these bridges considered at risk in a quake are in the Los Angeles Basin and elsewhere in Southern California.

“I think the important thing to realize at this point is that the governor is not satisfied with the progress (of the seismic program),” Dunphy said. “One hundred fourteen retrofitted bridges survived the Northridge quake. It’s time to bring this level of seismic safety to every vulnerable bridge in the state.”

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Dunphy said his plan would speed up the retrofitting of bridges primarily by requiring the California Department of Transportation to use emergency contracting procedures on all seismic projects--a measure that the head of the agency had earlier rejected as unnecessary.

The decision comes as lawmakers were preparing to pass legislation that would have forced the Administration to take many of the actions now being ordered by Dunphy.

The acceleration follows a Times special report last month which found that about 80% of the state’s most earthquake-vulnerable bridges still had not been retrofitted more than four years after the collapse of highway structures in the Loma Prieta temblor killed 43. In Los Angeles County, retrofitting work has not been performed on six of the 10 freeway bridges considered most hazardous.

None of the six bridges that failed in the Northridge quake had been retrofitted, although five of them had been identified as vulnerable to earthquake damage. The sixth bridge, on the Simi Valley Freeway at San Fernando Mission Boulevard, was not deemed an earthquake risk.

To speed up the seismic program, the Administration’s plan calls on the Legislature to remove some environmental and bureaucratic regulatory barriers that have slowed seismic projects. It directs the bureaucracy to make full use of outside contractors to complete engineering and design work.

Dunphy said an ombudsman will be appointed to work with local governments and utility companies to help remove any outside obstacles that could bog down seismic projects. Caltrans officials have complained that some retrofitting projects have been held up because utility companies and local governments have been slow to approve work that might affect facilities such as gas or electrical transmission lines.

Dunphy said the over $1 billion cost of the freeway retrofitting program would come from the state highway account, which is supported primarily by gasoline tax revenues. He said Gov. Pete Wilson envisions that $650 million for the retrofitting of toll bridges will be paid for out of toll revenues.

However, Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he would block any effort to use toll revenues for retrofitting and will fight to have that cost borne by gasoline tax revenues.

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Richard Katz, (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said he favors use of toll revenues for retrofitting.

But he said the Wilson Administration should not get credit for accelerating a program that had been allowed to lag nearly two years behind the deadlines the Legislature set for it after the Loma Prieta quake.

“What you essentially have is an election year acceleration of a program that will be accelerated so that it’s only a year behind schedule,” he said.

Although Katz acknowledged that the Legislature would probably approve most of what the Administration is requesting--in part because many of the proposals are already contained in legislation--he criticized the plan for not going far enough.

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He said appointing an ombudsman did not make up for the fact that the Administration had never put a high-profile official in charge of the retrofitting program with direct responsibility for ensuring that projects were completed on time.

Likewise, he said, the Administration’s plan does not specify how additional seismic projects would be handled once the 1,000 top-priority bridges are retrofitted.

As a result of the collapse of six bridges in the Northridge quake, Caltrans officials have decided to re-examine about 1,500 bridges they had previously determined were seismically safe.

Many of these bridges were constructed in the 1970s--when Caltrans officials believed their bridges were designed with enough strengthening details to withstand earthquakes. But the collapse of the Simi Valley Freeway bridge, an overpass completed in 1976, has prompted them to reconsider that assumption and review all bridges constructed in that decade.

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Caltrans officials have said they expect to know by the end of June, when the screening of the additional 1,500 bridges is completed, how many more will need to be retrofitted.

Dunphy said he envisions that all bridge retrofitting projects--whether they be on the original list of 1,000 or on a new list created by the screening of the additional 1,500 structures--will be expedited. He said retrofitting work, for example, on the state’s toll bridges--most of which are in the San Francisco Bay Area--would be completed by 1997 now, instead of 1998 as originally scheduled.

He said he saw no need to appoint a special manager for the seismic program because he intends to take personal responsibility for seeing that deadlines are met and the governor is apprised of its progress.

“With this governor’s interest and my interest, I am happy to delegate myself the responsibility of making sure that it stays on track,” said Dunphy, a former construction company owner. “I know when a project is on time and when it is not and how you tweak it and how you kick somebody in the butt to get it going.”

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Dunphy acknowledged that Caltrans Director James van Loben Sels was “probably wrong” when he determined earlier that it would not be necessary to utilize emergency contracting powers to complete the remaining seismic projects. But he insisted that van Loben Sels was now a strong supporter of the plan to accelerate the program.

Van Loben Sels, he said, “wants to make sure that it gets done as well and all of this is being done cooperatively,” he said.

Dunphy took issue with Katz’s contention that the Administration had been slow to expedite the seismic program, saying the governor had made clear shortly after the Northridge quake that he would announce a plan to speed up retrofitting.

“If I may be so bold, I would suggest that possibly the Legislature might be following what the governor was planning to do,” he said. “But I don’t think this is a who-came-in-first game. The governor seriously is seeking the most appropriate way to (accelerate the program).”

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