Less than three months after the Northridge earthquake knocked down two sections of the world's busiest thoroughfare, Gov. Pete Wilson announced Tuesday that the Santa Monica Freeway will reopen next week, ending frustrating delays and bottlenecks for thousands of commuters.
State officials hope the final cleanup of construction work can be completed early April 12 in time to let rush-hour traffic inaugurate the two new freeway bridges at La Cienega and Washington boulevards.
Spurred by the promise of an extra $200,000 a day for every day work was completed ahead of schedule, the contractor, C. C. Myers Inc., will finish the project 74 days before a June 24 deadline and rack up a $14.5-million bonus for the company.
The high-speed construction was made possible by crews working around the clock, seven days a week, and by state officials cutting through red tape.
"This freeway, with its broken bridges, broken connectors, became one of the most visible signs of the devastation brought upon Los Angeles by the Northridge earthquake," Wilson said during a news conference at the freeway. "Now its rebuilding and its reopening . . . will serve as one of the . . . symbols of the energy of this great community."
In Sacramento, Caltrans Director James van Loben Sels estimated that without the accelerated effort the project would probably have taken two years to complete.
But the acceleration did not come without cost. With the bonuses given to C. C. Myers, the price tag on the project rose from the original bid of $14.9 million to nearly $30 million.
Although Clinton Myers, president of the Rancho Cordova, Calif., construction company, had to hire extra crews, pay overtime and rent extra equipment, he said he will end up with about an $8-million profit. Asked what he was going to do with the money, he said, "I'm gonna buy me a bigger airplane."
The final price tag is more than offset by the economic losses that Los Angeles would have experienced if the freeway had remained closed until the June 24 deadline, officials said. A study by the governor's Office of Planning and Research concluded that the closure of the Santa Monica Freeway cost the economy of Los Angeles and neighboring communities about $1 million a day.
"This Santa Monica project demonstrates what can happen when private sector innovation and market incentives replace business as usual," said Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who joined Wilson and Caltrans officials at the news conference. "This is the way government should be carried out all the time, not just in emergencies."
Wilson's chief economist, Philip J. Romero, said that of all the bridges that collapsed in the Jan. 17 quake, those on the Santa Monica Freeway--the main east-west artery in Los Angeles--were the most costly to the economy.
With an average of 341,000 vehicles a day using the roadway, he said, the extra time it took goods to get to their destinations and workers to get to their jobs cost millions in lost production and wages.
The freeway collapse has pushed traffic onto crowded surface streets between Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles as frustrated commuters sought alternative routes. Detours have caused delays of 20 minutes or more.
The bridges on the Santa Monica were among six that collapsed in the Northridge earthquake and are the first to be rebuilt. Construction at all the other bridge sites is expected to be completed ahead of schedule.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) suggested that the announcement of the reopening may have been timed to give Wilson maximum media exposure to help his reelection effort.
Katz said that when Van Loben Sels was asked at a public hearing Monday when the freeway would reopen, the Caltrans director had answered that it would be in May or possibly at the end of April.
"Obviously from a commuter standpoint I think (reopening) is great and it shows that the private sector has a role to play in making government work," Katz said. "But I'm a little surprised that Caltrans Monday didn't have this information or kept it secret."
Michael Brennan, a spokesman for Caltrans, said the agency did not know for sure that the freeway would be able to reopen next week until officials did a walk-through of the site Tuesday morning.
Myers said he expected from the beginning of the project that he would be able to beat the Caltrans deadline by a wide margin.
"Nobody could build this any faster," Myers said. "I wouldn't say it was piece of cake, but we knew we could do it within 100 days."
Myers' company did similar work after the Loma Prieta quake. Caltrans selected Myers to rebuild two damaged bridges on California 1 near Watsonville. The agency allotted 100 days for completion of the project, which was the first time officials had used the incentive program, offering $30,000 for each day that Myers finished early. After working around the clock, the company came in 45 days ahead of schedule despite winter rains.
Immediately after the Northridge earthquake, Caltrans officials predicted that it would take 12 to 18 months to rebuild bridges on the Santa Monica Freeway and the region's five other damaged freeways. Then officials decided it could be done with greater speed, especially since the federal government would cover 100% of the costs if all work was completed within 180 days.
But when Caltrans announced that the freeways would be restored within six months, many Angelenos were skeptical. Five years after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, not a single damaged freeway there has been completely rebuilt.
Caltrans' district director, Jerry Baxter, said the Santa Monica Freeway bridges were reconstructed with deeper pilings, larger columns and more steel reinforcement than the spans they replaced. "They're the ultimate in design for safety," he said.
In the past two years, Myers has won more business from Caltrans than any other contractor. He was selected for four contracts in 1993 that totaled $108 million and eight projects worth $131.6 million the previous year, said Jim Drago, a Caltrans spokesman.
"Here's a guy who goes in with an attitude of 'I'm going to finish early and make a bonus,' " said Jim Roberts, the state's chief bridge engineer, in an interview last month. "Most of the contractors (on the quake-damaged freeways) are ahead of schedule but he's so far ahead it's unbelievable."
For the Santa Monica, five companies competed to do the reconstruction work. Brutoco Engineering & Construction was the lowest bidder, vowing to do the project for $20 million in 100 days. But when an error was found in its bid application, the company withdrew. Caltrans selected Myers to do the job in 140 days for $14.9 million.
To ensure speedy work, officials set up incentives and penalties: For every day ahead of schedule that work was finished, the company would receive $200,000, and it would be penalized at the same rate for lateness.
Caltrans officials based the amount of the incentive bonus on a complicated set of estimates of the daily cost to Los Angeles of having interrupted freeway service. Of all the contracts awarded, the incentive was largest on the Santa Monica.
In the early stages, workers on the Santa Monica Freeway hit some unexpected problems. First they discovered old foundations that had to be removed. Then they found contaminated underground water, which had to be disposed of according to state regulations. These snags delayed construction by about eight days, Myers said.
"These things all add up to a little extra time," he said. "You lose a day here and there."
On Tuesday, Myers was confident that the freeway would be open to traffic in a week. He did, however, have one concern. A truck loaded with supplies left New York City at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, headed for the Santa Monica Freeway.
"As long as that truck doesn't break down," Myers joked. "That would be the only problem."
Times staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this article.