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Damaged I-5 to Reopen Ahead of Schedule

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bringing another dose of relief to quake-weary Southern California commuters, officials said Tuesday that the reconstruction of two Interstate 5 bridges will be completed a month early, enabling the heavily traveled freeway to open to traffic next week.

Gov. Pete Wilson’s office confirmed that southbound lanes of the Golden State Freeway will open first--probably on the morning of May 18--followed a day later by the opening of the northbound lanes, which cannot carry traffic until a detour is removed.

“The governor feels that the I-5 Gavin Canyon project is a shining example of what happens when you combine top-notch engineers with an outstanding contractor and cut away the red tape,” said Sean Walsh, a Wilson spokesman.

The contractor, under an incentive system, will receive a bonus of $4.5 million for completing the work early.

The opening of the freeway removes a bottleneck that has slowed traffic on the major north-south artery into Los Angeles since the Northridge earthquake knocked down two 80-foot-high bridges at Gavin Canyon. The bridge destruction forced state transportation officials to construct a detour from Gavin Canyon, located about 23 miles north of Downtown, to the I-5 interchange at the Antelope Valley Freeway, two miles away.

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Ramps linking the two freeways at that interchange also were toppled in the Jan. 17 quake. Their reconstruction is not scheduled to be completed until late July.

The earthquake inflicted heavy damage on highways throughout the Los Angeles area, crippling segments of Interstate 5, the Santa Monica Freeway and the Simi Valley Freeway.

The Santa Monica Freeway last month became the first of the damaged freeways to reopen to traffic after contractors were able to complete reconstruction of two overpasses at Fairfax Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard 69 days ahead of schedule.

On Thursday, the first phase of the work on the Simi Valley Freeway overpasses at San Fernando Mission Boulevard and Bull Creek is expected to be completed. Traffic now being routed over the westbound lanes will be shifted to a newly constructed bridge on the eastbound lanes. The westbound lanes will then be closed so contractors can rebuild that section of the freeway.

Federal officials, who have provided almost all the financing for the rebuilding of quake-damaged freeways, said the speed with which construction has been completed demonstrates that government can mobilize in an emergency.

“Through innovative contracting, intergovernmental cooperation and the sweat and muscle of hundreds of construction workers, we’re setting records bringing quake-damaged highways back on line,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena.

Describing Interstate 5 as the “commercial backbone of the state’s economy,” he said the bottleneck at Gavin Canyon has hampered the movement of agricultural and manufactured products from California’s heartland to Los Angeles area ports and markets.

The announcement of the reopening is expected to be made jointly today by state and federal officials, who had earlier bickered over who would command the spotlight when the Santa Monica Freeway reopened.

The early completion of the I-5 reconstruction is expected to renew criticism of the financial incentives given contractors to complete work ahead of schedule. Each contractor has been offered a bonus for every day construction is completed early; they also face a penalty for every day their projects are completed late.

C.C. Myers Inc., the construction company that rebuilt the Santa Monica bridges, earned a nearly $14-million bonus for finishing in less than three months.

E.L. Yeager Construction Co. of Riverside, the contractor for the Gavin Canyon bridges, will earn a $4.5-million bonus on top of $14.8 million for completing the project. The bonus payment--$150,000 for every day the project is completed early--is based on the company’s finishing the reconstruction 30 days before a June 17 deadline.

Doug Aaland, Yeager’s chief engineer, said his company was able to complete the project more quickly than usual by working crews around the clock, seven days a week. “It was just a lot of working together between all parties,” he said.

Officials at the California Department of Transportation said the new bridges have been built to much higher strength than the ones that collapsed in the Northridge quake.

Caltrans press secretary Jim Drago said they have been designed to withstand a 7.1-magnitude quake on the San Gabriel Fault, which at four miles away is the fault nearest the bridges.

Although the Gavin Canyon bridges are designed not to collapse in an earthquake, Drago acknowledged that they have not been classified as “important” structures. That designation, reserved for bridges that must carry emergency traffic, would have required that they be engineered so they would not sustain damage requiring closure.

Drago said state engineers made several modifications to the design of the bridges while they were being constructed to add features that would enhance their ability to withstand earthquakes.

Caltrans was criticized for rebuilding the Santa Monica Freeway bridges with potential weaknesses at the abutments--the concrete structures connecting bridges to land--which required them to be retrofitted.

Drago said the same weaknesses in the design of the Gavin Canyon bridges were corrected while the bridges were under construction. Because of that and other additional work, he said, the contractor may ultimately get a higher bonus. He said nearly $1 million in additional bonus payments is still being negotiated.

* QUAKE SAFETY: Plan requiring gas valves that automatically shut off in a quake suffers a setback. B3


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