Golden State Freeway Opens 3 Weeks Early


Beneath gray skies that could not dampen the relief of commuters and truckers across California, the Golden State Freeway partially reopened Tuesday over Gavin Canyon in northern Los Angeles County, exactly four months after two 80-foot-high bridges collapsed in the Northridge earthquake.

A raincoat-wrapped Gov. Pete Wilson and local dignitaries heralded the early reconstruction of the freeway, the commercial lifeline between Southern California and the rest of the state.

"We're here to celebrate the latest victory in California's victory march in the wake of the Northridge earthquake," Wilson said of the freeway's reopening three weeks ahead of schedule. "This effort is going to put California, specifically the Los Angeles area, back on the fast lane to recovery."

State officials and the California Trucking Assn. have estimated that the closure of the Golden State Freeway cost the region about $550,000 in lost commerce per day. So perhaps it was fitting that the first vehicles to navigate the new bridges--behind California Highway Patrol squad cars with flashing lights--were tractor-trailers with Viking Freight System, one of California's largest intrastate carrier of goods.

"These guys just want to get from Point A to Point B and see their families, so this is a big thing," Senior Vice President Terry Shambaugh said from company headquarters in San Jose.

Wilson opened four restored southbound lanes at 2:30 p.m., flashing a thumbs-up sign at dozens of honking and whooping motorists who had resigned themselves to long backups on the Old Road detour around the downed freeway in Newhall. The four northbound lanes are scheduled to be opened sometime before noon today after the contractor moves the detour, which has carried the bulk of freeway traffic since Caltrans opened it Jan. 29.

Within 30 minutes of the removal of the road barriers, the Golden State returned to its old ways. Traffic slowed to 25 m.p.h. The freeway carried an average of 135,000 vehicles a day before the quake. The detour averaged 88,000 vehicles a day.

Caltrans officials had expected to begin putting the freeway back in business today. But consultations with the governor's office and the contractor late Monday night pushed the date up to Tuesday afternoon, sending officials scrambling to cobble together an opening ceremony complete with balloons and caterer.

"We realized the contractor would be ready earlier than we thought," said Caltrans Director James W. van Loben Sels, "so we got on the phone and said, 'We can't wait any longer.' "

The reconstruction of the twin Gavin Canyon spans caps 3 1/2 months of round-the-clock work by Riverside-based E. L. Yeager Construction Co., which will harvest a bonus of about $4.5 million for finishing the project ahead of the planned June 8 date. The original contract was worth $14.8 million.

Although the financial incentives--including an extra $14.5 million awarded to the company that rebuilt the shattered Santa Monica Freeway--have come under recent criticism, Wilson said the expense was justified.

"It's money well-spent," he said. "It's the kind of thing the private sector does routinely."

Repair of the Santa Monica Freeway--the world's busiest--was completed by April, but Caltrans District Director Jerry Baxter, who oversees Los Angeles and Ventura counties, said restoration of Interstate 5 was also a high priority because of its economic significance and the lack of surface street alternatives through the Newhall Pass.

"In my mind this was probably the most important bridge," Baxter said. "With the Santa Monica, we had alternate routes. (With the Golden State Freeway) we had no alternate routes. This is the major commerce connection with Central and Northern California."

Work on the I-5 was more arduous and complex than reconstructing the Santa Monica Freeway, Caltrans officials said. The overpasses rise four times higher over the ground than the 20-foot bridges on the Santa Monica. Greater inaccessibility to supply trucks and adverse weather conditions in the windy pass also made the job more difficult.

But officials credited a cooperative contractor, streamlined bidding and permitting processes and an effective partnership between federal, state and local agencies with speeding work along.

"It's almost a miracle," said Jacques Yeager, chairman of the contracting firm that devoted 200 employees--three times the normal number--to the repair project.

At the opening Tuesday, there was none of the political sniping that was an undercurrent to last month's reopening of the Santa Monica, when some federal officials privately complained that Wilson hogged the credit for a project paid for with federal money. In fact, Wilson and Rodney Slater of the Federal Highway Administration remarked pointedly on the good working relationship among all parties involved.

However, state Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who was invited but did not attend Tuesday's ceremony, accused Wilson of trying to reap the most political capital from the event.

"It's an ongoing process for the governor to maximize the political benefit of a freeway opening, even if there were a lot of other people involved in the rebuilding," Katz said in Sacramento.

Although the Gavin Canyon bridges should be completely open to traffic by the end of today, construction is ongoing on the interchange between the Golden State and the Antelope Valley freeways.

Caltrans officials said work had fallen behind after the contractor ran into a concrete footing left behind after construction in 1967. But Caltrans' Baxter said the first phase would still be completed by the end of July, with the entire interchange back in operation by the end of the year.

The collapse of the freeway forced many north county motorists to try mass transit for the first time. Ridership on the Metrolink commuter trains from Santa Clarita skyrocketed from about 1,000 to nearly 22,000 immediately after the quake.

The number of passengers has dropped since, with the monthly average about 5,500 journeys a day on the Santa Clarita line. Metrolink spokesman Peter Hidalgo said the reopening of the freeway may clip ridership further but expressed hope that quake-inspired riders would remain loyal. "We've found from our informal on-board surveys that they're hooked," Hidalgo said.

Lorena Owens is one of the newly converted.

"I'm not driving if I don't have to," Owens said as she got off the train in Santa Clarita on Tuesday afternoon. Owens, who has been living in Acton since the quake ruined her Santa Clarita home, hops on the train every day in Santa Clarita and transfers in Sylmar to a van bound for Warner Center.

"I thought I'd miss my car during the day, but I don't miss it at all," Owens said. "I come home and I'm relaxed and ready to keep going."

Times staff writers Cynthia H. Craft and Abigail Goldman contributed to this story.

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