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The Great Race : Driven by Eager Politicians and a Contractor Who Stood to Earn $200,000 for Every Day They Finished Ahead of Schedule, a Team of Workers Set Out to Rebuild the Santa Monica Freeway. The Result: 18 Months of Work in 66 Days.

<i> Staff writer Nora Zamichow covers transportation issues for The Times</i>

Contractor C.C. Myers, a self-made multimillionaire whose toys include Rolls-Royces, a stretch limousine, a Cessna, a jet and a helicopter, had a more substantial gift in mind for his 56th birthday.

He wanted the concrete deck of the quake-shattered Santa Monica Freeway poured and smoothed, the last major hurdle before the freeway could be reopened, the last thing standing between him and a multimillion-dollar bonus for finishing early. But first he’d have to get the cooperation of his ironworkers, who were exhausted from the round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week pace, some even asking that their shifts be cut from 12 hours to eight. Myers, who prided himself on bidding smart and talking tough, was going to have to persuade the ironworkers not only to avoid cutting back but to work even faster.

He paid a call on the ironworkers’ supervisors. Myers, his hulking 6 feet, 4 inches elevated by black ostrich-skin boots, seemed to fill the ramshackle trailer under the freeway. Ignoring the offer of a chair, he sat on a rickety bench that creaked and swayed beneath him. The two foremen listened to his pitch, praying that he wouldn’t topple to the floor. If Myers wanted them to spur on their men, they said, they’d need personal incentives. A deal was cut. Myers promised $250 to the night shift foreman, $250 to his Little League team and $1,000 to be spread among his 20 men. Workers on both shifts would get a lavish Italian meal. Like Myers says, “You have to know how to stir the pot.”

So on Myers’ birthday, March 31, the concrete was poured, days ahead of schedule. And instead of flying in his private jet to meet his wife and two sons at their home near Sacramento, Clinton Myers celebrated his birthday with the men who call themselves “rodbusters,” men who were uneasy about wearing dirty jeans and torn T-shirts in the fancy restaurant. His voice thick with emotion and red wine, he thanked the men and pulled out his wallet. Peeling off hundred-dollar bills, he carefully set 10 of them on the table. It was a communal moment of sheer triumph. “You guys worked your butts off,” Myers told the ironworkers. “You ought to be proud of what you accomplished.”

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They, along with teams of carpenters, finishers and laborers, a squad of more than 400 at its height, had done the undoable--they had speeded the rebuilding of the Santa Monica Freeway so traffic would flow on April 12, more than two months earlier than state officials had predicted. Working through nights, weekends and rain, they had done in 66 days what would have taken 18 months under normal circumstances. It was a feat made possible by powerful forces: a President, courting California voters, who opened federal coffers; a governor, running for reelection, who cut red tape; movers and shakers who demanded that the artery connecting Downtown to the politically powerful Westside be opened now ; a recession-weary construction force, desperate for overtime; and, maybe most of all, a boss like C.C. Myers.

IN 1965, AS A DIXIELAND BAND PLAYED, A GOODYEAR BLIMP SWUNG A TIRE from the end of a 150-foot rope to rip through the ribbon just west of La Cienega Boulevard, opening the Santa Monica Freeway. At a cost of more than $200 million, Los Angeles at long last had its first major east-west artery.

It quickly became the freeway that Angelenos most loved and hated. It offered a speedier trip to the coast than surface streets, but its lanes were always crowded, suffering rush-hour jams in both directions. It was the busiest freeway in America and when the Northridge earthquake smashed it, Angelenos were desperate for its prompt return.

The state’s chief bridge engineer, Jim Roberts of Sacramento, was shaving when his telephone rang at 5 a.m. on Jan. 17, the Martin Luther King holiday. Roberts had figured he would work without interruption until noon at Caltrans headquarters, but the phone call upset his plans and for an instant, the 41-year Caltrans veteran wished he’d retired. Then he shifted into gear.

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Roberts had been through the 1971 Sylmar quake and the 1989 Loma Prieta, in which collapsed freeways killed 43. He knew what to expect this time. He mobilized his staff, then faced the klieg lights for a barrage of questions from reporters. Roberts, 63, admitted that the prognosis was not good.

Caltrans officials initially predicted it would take 12 to 18 months to rebuild the region’s damaged thoroughfares. When they promised a flat-out, no-holds-barred campaign to deliver the restored freeways within six months, many were skeptical. After all, five years after the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the Bay Area, not all the damaged freeways there have been completely rebuilt.

The shattered Santa Monica had been scheduled for retrofitting one month later. Had the quake hit after the retrofit, the bridges at Washington and Fairfax might well have survived. A nearby off-ramp at Cadillac Avenue, newly retrofitted with steel jackets, was unscathed.

Only hours after the quake, a regiment of federal and state transportation officials--and Gov. Wilson--flew to Los Angeles. Cynics say that’s because it’s an election year. But Caltrans officials say no one ever mentioned politics.

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“It was not to be business as usual because of the impact on the economy and the inability of the people in Los Angeles to move around,” says Caltrans director James W. van Loben Sels. “Here was an opportunity to show that bureaucrats are not intrinsically bureaucratic.”

Wilson and Van Loben Sels ordered shortcuts in Caltrans’ labyrinthine bureaucracy, allowing the agency to shave months from normal bidding procedures. For the small projects, Caltrans didn’t bother with competitive bidding. It asked C.C. Myers and four other contractors to bid the Santa Monica project. These were outfits that had offices in Southern California, had built Caltrans projects before, could move quickly, and would be able to meet the goal of drawing 40% of their subcontractors from minority- or women-owned companies, Roberts says.

Caltrans dispatched employees--loaded with a carton of plans and specifications--on airplanes to reach the five contractors, so each received the same information at roughly the same time. Their bids were evaluated and the contract was awarded the same day. Instead of starting in the standard 15 days, Myers began work within 24 hours, dispatching crews from his Gardena office to prepare for drilling the 50-foot shafts for the foundation.

Later, there would be some complaints. Jim Carter, one of Myers’ former partners and president of MCM Construction Inc., was angry that his North Highlands company--a fierce Myers competitor and one of the top firms in California--had not been invited to bid on the Santa Monica, though he had been asked to bid on other quake reconstruction jobs. “Why weren’t we asked?” Carter questions. “It just slays us because Myers has the easiest project and the most incentive. It’s a slam-dunk kind of thing.”

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But in the hours and days after the quake, nothing looked easy. And Caltrans officials were not just considering the convenience of Los Angeles motorists. If the reconstruction was completed within 180 days, the federal government would pick up the entire tab, standard for national disasters. Initially, the cost of repairing damaged freeways and establishing alternative transportation was estimated at $1 billion--an amount that was more than halved as officials began reviewing their bills last month.

“When you get into an emergency like this, you just do it,” Roberts says. “We’re not doing anything immoral or illegal, we’re just doing everything faster.”

BRUTOCO ENGINEERING & CONSTRUCTION HAD PLEDGED TO DO THE JOB in the least time--100 days--and for $20 million. But the Fontana-based company withdrew when an error was discovered on its application. On Feb. 4, Caltrans selected Myers, the second-lowest bidder, based on a combination of time and money. Myers agreed to do the job in 140 days for $14.9 million. And Caltrans created an unusual incentive--Myers would receive $200,000 for every day that the freeway was opened ahead of schedule. If he was late, he would be penalized the same amount.

The deal triggered a nonstop race in which Myers rode his crews, sometimes cajoling, sometimes goading, sometimes screaming. No one could rebuild the Santa Monica Freeway faster, Myers boasted.

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Myers knew what the job would take. After the Loma Prieta earthquake, his company, C.C. Myers Inc. of Rancho Cordova, rebuilt two damaged bridges on Highway 1 near Watsonville in record time. Caltrans allotted 100 days for that project, the first in which cash incentives were offered. Despite winter rains, Myers finished the job 45 days ahead of schedule--earning $1 million in incentive pay.

“This is a guy who’s done this and knows how,” says Roberts. “He’s a real hustler; he’s got everybody organized to move fast. I visited the job after Loma Prieta: Myers had five different operations going simultaneously. On a normal job, you have a couple.”

Myers, one of 13 children raised on a hardscrabble farm in Highland, dropped out of the 10th grade and left his father’s home carrying all his belongings in a small box to stay with his mother in Long Beach, sleeping under the awning of her trailer. He became a carpenter’s apprentice, eventually working for Los Angeles builder Benny Benedict, and went on to become a regional supervisor in Benedict’s company.

Almost two decades later, their roles were reversed. Polich & Benedict Inc. had folded and Myers had started his own company. He hired his onetime boss, and when the older man retired five years ago, Myers threw a wingding for 200 at the Sheraton Rancho Cordova and gave Benedict the keys to a maroon Rolls-Royce.

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He can afford to take care of old friends. His construction firm has branched out into development and now owns more than 5,000 acres in California, 300 in Las Vegas, 100 in Colorado and another 800 in Utah. He’s invested in Oklahoma gas and a newly opened casino resort in the Czech Republic. He’s sold $35 million worth of homes in Las Vegas and $5 million worth of lots in Utah, he says.

He donated 400 acres to the state of Utah, a parcel he figures would be an ideal site for the Winter Olympics, keeping 800 acres adjacent, where he’s now building homes. And he’s saving one prime spot for himself, a site on top of a mountain where he’d have a spectacular view of racing skiers. He doesn’t ski; his sons do.

Though final details of the contract are still in flux, Myers will win a bonus of as much as $13.8 million on the Santa Monica job. Some of this, Myers says, will be eaten up by the cost of hiring around-the-clock crews and other expenses tied to accelerating the work. His payroll each week usually topped $1 million. Myers figures about $8 million of the bonus will be profit, and some of that will go to the purchase of a bigger, faster jet. He also wanted to reward his workers, so he has already spent about $30,000 buying $100 dinner gift certificates for those who worked at least two weeks on the Santa Monica.

“I’m like a spider. I start crawling out there and getting a hold of things,” says Myers. “You start out with nothing then you really want to see what you can accomplish.”

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Rebuilding the freeway was not just about money, he insists. It was the challenge. It was the chance to say, without seeming to brag, “We are the best.”

CALTRANS AWARDED THE CONTRACT TO MYERS EVEN BEFORE THE BRIDGE blueprints were finished. While all the other repairs to downed freeways were designed by Caltrans, the agency turned to consultant Wei Koo for the Santa Monica. Koo knew the bridges inside and out; the Orange-based structural engineer had designed the planned retrofits.

Koo and his team of 30 began work Jan. 21 and delivered the first set of drawings to Caltrans six days later. The last set was turned in on March 4, a little more than a month before the bridge opened to traffic. “Normally, this job would have taken nine months,” says Koo, whose firm will receive about $520,000 for the design.

Usually, a set of bridge plans is sent to Caltrans headquarters, where they are evaluated for a period of weeks, or even months. Then they are submitted to peer review. Finally, when a design clears those hurdles, it is handed over to the builder. But this time, C.C. Myers got the plans in installments after Koo finished them and Caltrans approved them. The peer review occurred after construction had begun, something Koo describes as “gut-wrenching.” If the plans failed the review, both he and Myers would have had to start all over.

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But the plans ran into no real obstacles. Among those who reviewed them was Nigel Priestley, professor of structural engineering at UC San Diego and a leader in bridge design. “We made minor comments,” Priestley says. “The design appeared to be competent, well-conceived, and had the sort of details we hoped to see.”

The original structures could withstand displacement of no more than two inches when the earth shook, Koo says. The new 491-foot-long Fairfax structure can sway as much as 17 inches without damage. At La Cienega, the 776-foot span will displace up to 11 inches.

In the original design, the steel was placed in a series of circles embedded in concrete supporting columns. But the ends of those circles were not joined, which allowed the columns to break open and crumble. The new ones are built with steel hoops within the columns. They are also designed to have many more steel bars, all woven closely together. All told, the two structures take almost 6 million pounds of reinforcing steel.

It meant more work for the ironworkers. And it meant a bridge whose design evolved even as Myers built it. These factors spelled constant aggravation for Myers, who often barreled into the Caltrans trailer on the construction site to see Tyrone Taylor, the agency’s resident engineer.

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“It’s a f- - -ing disaster. All that steel costs us a lot of time,” Myers railed one day. “It’s abnormal--no one anticipated this kind of bull- - - -. We bid to build a standard bridge.”

Such conversations were common. Taylor never lost his temper. And he was embarrassed when they occurred in front of a reporter. “This is off the record, off the record,” he declared as Myers ranted about the bridge design.

“All we bid on is a normal, standard Caltrans bridge,” Myers stormed. “Now you are adding all this bull- - - -. If it wasn’t for all these problems, I’d be done 10 days sooner.”

The problems were many: Workers found old foundations and an abandoned drainage structure, not indicated on the plans, that had to be removed. Drillers discovered contaminated water. Patched water lines leaked, causing cranes and cement trucks to sink in the soggy ground.

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Hoping to make up lost time, Myers proposed to Caltrans that he use a quick-drying cement on the bridge decks. While concrete typically takes up to 10 days to cure, this stuff would dry in two days. But because it is expensive, the concrete--used on airport runways--had never been poured for Caltrans bridges, and therefore wouldn’t be used this time. He used a cement that dried in five days, but this still meant that squeezing the workers was the only way to accelerate the rebuilding of the freeway bridges.

ON MOST CONSTRUCTION JOBS, HAMMERS POUND ONLY EIGHT HOURS A day, five days a week, and they stop for rain and holidays. It’s a somewhat orderly tag-team event--pile-drivers create the foundation; carpenters set up the falsework, the wooden frame that creates a temporary bridge; the ironworkers take over; carpenters return to erect wooden forms; and then the finishers pour the concrete.

But now the rules have been tossed. Crews from each trade nip one another, pushing for the other to work faster and get out of the way. Myers eggs them on. Myers asks the ironworkers: “You like those carpenters butting you in the ass all the time?” Then he scolds the carpenters for going too slowly.

Myers puts one supervisor, Kojak, (who refuses to give his real name, preferring to go by the one he acquired when he shaved his head) in charge of the bridge at Fairfax Avenue and Washington Boulevard, and another supervisor, Dwayne Barth, in charge of the one at Venice and La Cienega boulevards. He plays the two men off one another. “Looks like Kojak is starting to smoke you,” Myers tells Barth. “That little f- - - - - is going to bite your ass. You better get going.” And when he sees Kojak later, he takes him aside, warning him: “The kid is going to get you.”

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The result is a fiercely competitive race, in which the ironworkers grouse that the carpenters are delaying them. The finishers scream that the ironworkers are too slow. The day crew complains that the night shift isn’t pulling its weight. The night crew claims that the day crew is lazy and leaves the narrow scaffolding walkways cluttered. They work 12 hours, or longer, seven days a week. With huge 4,000-watt light towers, the work continues 24 hours a day. One week is the equivalent of four on an ordinary site.

When a worker leaves and returns for his next shift, invisible hands have continued his labors. He no longer picks up where he left off, something many find disconcerting. “You feel no ownership here,” says Cecil Jennings, 31, a carpenter from Paramount. “Here, we do our section and it’s already poured by the time you come back. It’s not my bridge. There are too many people out there.”

Thirty-three days into the job, workers swarm over plywood and timber. In the glare of the sunlight, the bridges loom large, vast expanses of tawny yellow wood frame that look nothing like roads. The motion and noise are constant, men shouting orders, the beep-beep-beep of heavy equipment backing up, the popping of nail guns, the thud of lumber being moved, the clanging of metal. Frustrated motorists maneuver past. A driver leans on his horn as he whizzes by, yelling: “Work faster, work faster.” Nights are more peaceful. No traffic. Fewer workers. At dusk, klieg lights are set up, making this stretch of construction seem almost like a movie set.

Both bridges are informally divided into sections, each at a different phase. In one, carpenters hammer a wooden deck. In another, they build wooden forms so concrete can be poured. In yet another, ironworkers lay out steel rods, weaving them into a complex grid.

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The ironworkers, builders say, have the worst of a bridge job. In teams, they hoist long rods of joined reinforcing steel, weighing several hundred pounds, that can bend like uncooked strands of spaghetti. At other times, they work separately, lacing together shorter lengths of steel rebar, weighing up to 150 pounds.

Ironworkers lose fingers. A bad back comes with the trade. Their bodies ache, a constant dull pain that the old-timers say becomes as automatic as swallowing. “The bars drop on your feet and you just kind of grin and bear it. You keep going until the pain is gone,” says Sam LoVetere, 25, an ironworker from Huntington Beach.

One by one, LoVetere carefully carries and places the rods several inches apart on the deck. Next, bent over double, he lifts a rod several inches above the deck, thrusting a small concrete block beneath it, so that when the concrete is poured, the bars will be surrounded.

The ironworkers have a rhythm. Step. Crouch. Place a block. Step. Crouch. Place a block. It is interrupted only by forages for more steel rebar, stacks of which are lifted to the deck by a towering crane. When the blocks are set, the dance changes: Step. Crouch. Tie. Step. Crouch. Tie. Seven days a week. Ten hours a day, for four weeks straight.

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LoVetere’s father was an ironworker, but LoVetere says he does the job for one reason: the money. He usually earns about $25 an hour. For work on Saturdays and overtime, he gets time-and-a-half. On Sundays, his pay is doubled. He knew he’d be working long shifts that would stretch into seemingly endless weeks. All told, he grossed about $8,000 for his 27 days’ work here.

Ironworkers have their own culture, tools and attire. They take their breaks by themselves. They pride themselves on being the sure-footed bad boys of the bridge, known for their colorful language and their ability to endure backbreaking labor. That pride, however, made them a target for Myers. If they were so good, why didn’t they work faster?

Many of the workers and foremen didn’t relish encounters with Myers, who says he hasn’t taken a vacation in 17 years. “To him, everything is cash. He steps on everybody. He can buy and sell you like you were nothin’,” said one. “He looks right through people. But his checks don’t bounce.”

The job was going well. There were the minor nits and wrinkles of construction, a seemingly never-ending flow of small mishaps. The crane had dislodged itself from its tracks. One abutment appeared to be almost one foot too high. A Caltrans inspector questioned the mix of concrete being poured into a patch.

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But no major trials. So, as he did on evenings when he was pleased, he offered to treat his top men to dinner. Myers and his men chewed over the events of the very long day at a cheap pizza joint. Prompted by the fleeting image on a nearby television of a scantily clad woman in a boxing ring, they launched a discussion of why there are so few women wrestlers, which, in turn, led to the pros and cons of silicone breasts.

It meant the day went well. Otherwise, the men wouldn’t deviate from talk of work. On this night, there was a sense of family. The men, who’d cursed one another at various times in the past weeks, now ribbed each other. Everyone accused Kojak of trying to hoard all the heavy equipment at his end of the freeway.

WITH THE THRONGS OF WORKERS laboring long hours, the minor-injury rate was slightly higher than the national average. About 30 needed stitches or walk-in medical attention. The most serious accident occurred two days before the freeway opened, when a foreman inadvertently backed a pickup truck over a kneeling carpenter, breaking his pelvis.

Even one of Myers’ top men suffered a minor mishap. Gary Janco, Myers’ right-hand man and the first employee he hired when he started his company in 1977, cut his foot with a chain saw. Janco simply put duct tape on his boot and limped around.

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Janco, along with 24 of his key lieutenants, was summoned for the Santa Monica because he had worked on the Watsonville bridges and knew the breakneck pace Myers wanted to set on this one. He normally oversees all of Myers’ Northern California projects, and here, he orchestrated the logistics of the bridge reconstruction--an event that resembles a military maneuver in its staging.

He spent much of his time on the phone, wheedling and extracting what he needed from suppliers. The heavy equipment--including nine cranes, four loaders, 26 light towers, five air compressors and nine generators--had to arrive in good working condition. And tons of steel and timber had to be delivered on time. When the railroad couldn’t fetch steel beams quickly enough, Myers agreed to pay an extra $119,000 to have them delivered within three days by train.

Janco can’t remember how many bridges he’s built, there have been so many. But for project engineer Dermot Fallon, 26, his graduate engineering degree newly minted from Long Beach State, the counting was easy--this was his first. “This is the project of a lifetime, right here. This is the whole reason I wanted to get into construction, to build a job like this,” he says. “This job has it all. You got the pain and you got the glory. I can see myself in 30 years driving with my kid, saying ‘Son, I built this.’ ”

Every now and then, in little snatches of time, it dawned on Fallon that his life would soon change. Fallon plans to marry in November. But on the bridge he could think of little besides surveying. Sometimes he awakened in a panic in the middle of the night, fretting that he had made a mistake.

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“This job never leaves you. This job doesn’t begin at 7 and end at 7--you are making decisions on the radio, the second you leave the house,” says Fallon, who lives in Long Beach. “Everything has been put on hold for this job. No surfin’, no nothing. This job, you are pushing, pushing, pushing--there’s no time to get ahead.”

His day started at 6:15 a.m. and ended somewhere between nine to 20 hours later. On other jobs, he’d had time to sit down and study the plans, but on this one, the plans kept changing. He’d stand out on falsework giving orders based on the sketches in his hand when a Caltrans inspector would walk over to tell him that there were now new plans. During the first three weeks of work, this sometimes happened every day.

There were about 25 Caltrans inspectors, clad in white jumpsuits and orange safety vests with blue hard hats, checking and double-checking the work, making sure it was in accordance with the plan and building codes. They earned anywhere from $16 to $26 per hour, with time-and-a-half for overtime. Inspector Lillian Yan, a petite, soft-spoken woman with her black hair pulled back in a ponytail, roamed the site with the tools of her trade: a spool of ribbons and a tape measure in her hands.

During her 12-hour shifts, she measured the depth of cement, spaces between steel bars and all the other details. If she found a mistake, the workers did it over, Yan says firmly. She combed the bridge, tagging errors with the ribbons. Red for ironworkers, blue for carpenters, yellow for laborers. Only Yan or another inspector was allowed to remove the ribbons.

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At first, maybe, she felt pressure, the burden of long hours and keeping pace with the workers. But it settled into an almost mesmerizing routine. When Yan, 24, began working on the freeway, she says, “I just stopped the rest of my life for a while.”

At best, inspectors are regarded as obstacles to progress. One superintendent jokes, “Every time I see those damn ribbons, I just pull them off.”

Once the inspector gives the OK to pour, the finishers need a steady flow of concrete. But the concrete will begin to harden if it’s in the mix trucks too long. Too many trucks can mean expensive waste; too few would hinder the work.

On March 31, there were not enough trucks. Myers got on the phone with the supplier. When he hires a subcontractor on this job, he gets the company head’s home number, and he calls at any time of the day or night.

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“This is Myers. Can we get more concrete on Venice? You’re killing us. We’re stopping and starting. I got my people hollering at me. I never had nobody hollering at me like that.”

There was a pause as he listened to the response. “You’ll have to do better,” he said coldly. Within the hour, a dozen trucks lined up, their drivers napping as they waited for their turn to service the pourer.

Clarissa Hinman was foreman of the concrete finishers, a rare woman in this predominantly male world and one of a handful of women foremen at Myers. Now 50, she lost her job as a social worker counseling battered women 15 years ago and has been a finisher ever since. In the beginning, she tried to go to graduate school, too. But she had so little time for her daughter that she had to drop out.

“I was much more excited about learning a trade, being outdoors,” says Hinman, who grew up on a farm. Softly, so no one will hear, she says, “I’m a feminist.”

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At first, Hinman couldn’t pick up a 100-pound sack of sand--but she learned. “I’m tough. Straightforward and bossy,” she says. “I like the physical work, I like working hard. It’s tangible.”

Hinman, exacting and precise, is now a connoisseur of concrete pours. “In a bridge, everything has to be supremely flat, pleasing to the eye,” she says. “It’s got to be classy, smooth. It’s our job to finish it properly, so other workers can do their job.”

Concrete finisher David Vargas and his fellow concrete finishers pulled on tall rubber boots, many of them using duct tape to bind the boots to their pants so concrete couldn’t slide in. They stepped into shin-deep fresh concrete, following the nozzle of the pourer, then, bent nearly double, used shovels to distribute the concrete evenly and floats to smooth it. “Chemicals in the concrete make it really hot,” says Vargas, who earns $20.26 an hour. “It’s not really hot at first. When it starts setting, steam comes off. You yank your legs up to take a step; it’s like 10 pounds on your legs. Wherever you step, you’ve got to cover it up. You step, you fix. You step, you fix.”

When the pour began, Vargas was eager to show that he was a good worker. He had been employed only eight months last year, and is saving to weather the next dry spell. “It’s very competitive in construction,” says the finisher from Pico Rivera. “You have got to prove yourself. We go 100 miles per hour.”

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Vargas and the others are well aware that they are easily replaced in a recession-plagued industry, in which union officials say that between 35% and 50% of their members are unemployed. On the Santa Monica project, which used only union labor, dozens of men and women showed up day and night pleading for a job, any job--even washing the company cars.

“If you don’t do it, and do it right, someone else will,” says Billy Herrera, 41, a labor foreman who drove almost two hours to his Ventura County home when he finished his 12-hour shift.

The jobs don’t wait, workers say. Joe Alvarez’s wife was expecting their fourth baby. But Alvarez, a crane oiler from Upland, was employed only seven months last year and didn’t figure he’d accompany his wife to the hospital for the baby’s birth.

“I’ve kinda got it stuck in the back of my mind,” says Alvarez, 35. “But times have been hard--you have to take advantage of when the work is there.”

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As it turned out, Anna Alvarez went into labor on a Saturday night after her husband came home from work. While he slept, she drove herself to the hospital because she wasn’t sure if she was in labor and he was so exhausted. She called him and he joined her at the hospital before she delivered their baby, Kathleen. Alvarez took the day off.

BEFORE THE FREEWAY opened, even before the concrete had dried, the politicking reached a frenzy. The prize was a grand one, early completion of the Santa Monica Freeway--an unsullied example of government working as Angelenos would hope. Yet there were questions: Had Caltrans miscalculated, was that why Myers finished early? Had the state been rooked?

Caltrans officials say that all the Santa Monica bids were within range of Myers’, and that those bids, in part, set the parameters of the project. “We want a quality job, and we want it done safely,” Roberts says. “We don’t want to push people too close to the wall.”

But such explanations couldn’t fully allay the sticker shock of Myers’ huge bonus. “Caltrans still doesn’t understand project management, they obviously thought it would take six months to do the Santa Monica,” says Assemblyman Richard Katz. “To be able to shave almost two months off that project makes me wonder if this contractor is going to reap a windfall because Caltrans did such a poor job estimating.”

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Even amid such complaints, however, everyone wanted to claim credit for restoring the freeway that cost the local economy $1 million a day in delayed deliveries and service. On Monday, April 4, federal officials--who footed the bill on the Santa Monica’s reconstruction--and Mayor Richard Riordan’s staff were told that the freeway would not open for “weeks.” The very next day, Wilson upstaged them by announcing that the freeway would open seven days hence.

The opening ceremony was scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 12, although traffic would flow as soon as the barrier rails and signs were in place. It was meant to be a gala event, attended by Vice President Al Gore and Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, as well as Riordan and Wilson. But on the eve of the planned hoopla, Caltrans officials announced that the freeway would open later that night at 11 o’clock, April 11--in time for the evening news.

Wilson, Riordan and Pena--the latter of whom was reached 90 minutes before the event--attended the impromptu press conference. The other federal dignitaries, however, had not yet arrived. When Myers showed up with his friends, a Highway Patrol officer brusquely ordered them to move their cars to make way for the governor’s motorcade.

Hal Taines, Myers’ real estate partner and longtime friend, turned to him, and asked: “Have they paid for the freeway yet? If they haven’t paid, they can’t tell you where to park.”

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Helicopters hovered overhead, scores of television cameras lined the freeway as the politicians removed the orange cones that had blocked the cars. Myers, standing with his wife, Janelle, watched from the freeway shoulder. Motorists, honking and cheering, surged forward. The job was done.

“I’ve never seen an opening like this. Watsonville didn’t have one-quarter of this,” Myers said.

The very next day, under a hot sun beside the freeway, there were congratulatory speeches. Myers, dressed in a black suit, was asked to sit with Caltrans officials and dignitaries on the podium. Myers’ lieutenants turned out for the occasion. Janco wore a suit. Kojak wore clean jeans.

Gore presented Myers and several Caltrans officials with a hammer, adorned with red, white and blue ribbon, set in a gold frame. The note read: “Thanks for rebuilding the bridge and for helping to rebuild America’s trust in government, Al Gore.”

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The audience cheered. Dozens of cameras were thrust forward.

Kojak rolled his eyes. “It’s just a bridge.”


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